Some of the best movies I can think of are movies about writers. Take Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002), for example, or James Brooks’ As Good As It Gets (1997) or even this year’s whimsical Ruby Sparks from directing duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. All portray writers as characters with conflicts, who face self-doubt on a daily basis, and for whom a blank page is equal to a deathbed.
They are neurotic (Woody Allen’s forte, with movies like Deconstructing Harry and even Midnight in Paris), unsatisfied, and not driven by monetary success but by artistic aspiration. It could be said that writers in film are among the most truthful, best developed characters. So when a movie like The Words comes along, it is a real bummer to find out it is a missed opportunity.
Written and directed by Lee Sternthal and Bryan Klugman (who worked together as writers on Tron: Legacy) and shot in Montreal last summer, The Words can be best described as a movie about books for people who don’t read.
Aspiring writer Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) and his girlfriend Dora (Zoe Saldana) move into a tiny, dirty New York flat, where Rory starts writing. We don’t know what he is writing, or what inspired him to write it, we just know it’s called something as banal as The Burning Tree. He gets praised as a revelation by multiple editors, who nonetheless refuse to publish it, using clichéd phrases like “this is not the right time” or “we don’t know how to market a book like this.” Rory’s hopes are crushed, until the day he finds an old briefcase in an antique shop in Paris while honeymooning with Dora.
When they get back to New York, he finds a manuscript inside and starts reading it. Rory is so taken by the book, that he starts retyping it on his laptop, and when Dora finds it, thinking that it’s his, she encourages him to show it to a publisher. Of course, the book (another cheesy title, The Window Tears) becomes the next great American novel and Rory Jansen is an overnight success.
But one day he is approached by an unnamed old man (the great Jeremy Irons, whose presence is the only good thing in the film) who, some 40 or 50 years ago, wrote the book. From here on, Rory goes on a guilt trip and begins to regret what he did. The price he has to pay for stealing another man’s work is, basically, to feel guilty for the rest of his life.
The film is meant to be a layered story, with Dennis Quaid playing a writer who wrote a book about a writer (Rory) who stole another writer’s work, but it’s just plain confusing and doesn’t advance the plot in any way. The only episode worth watching is when the old man recounts how he wrote the book, with Ben Barnes and Nora Arnezeder as the characters in The Window Tears — fictionalized versions of the old man himself as a young American soldier in Paris and the French girl he fell in love with. No good use is made of an otherwise talented ensemble cast, and overall, The Words is as vague and as content-free as its title. ■