From the two-man writer-director team of Brian Klugman and Lee Sterntha, The Words has Bradley Cooper returning to the role of the young, flawed, struggling writer he played so well in Limitless – a writer who is desperate to succeed and who will do anything to achieve his goal. In Limitless he of course turns to the powerful performance-enhancing drug that is the centerpiece of the film’s story, and in The Words, Cooper’s character, Rory Jansen, comes across an old, unpublished manuscript and passes it off as his own. The book goes on to achieve unanimous critical acclaim and massive commercial success and all is well and good until its true author seeks out Jansen and confronts him about his theft.
“Unanimous critical acclaim” sound a little far-fetched for a novel by a no-name writer? Well, keep in mind that Jansen is actually a character within a book written by Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid), an apparently well-known writer who starts The Words with a public reading of his latest work. Jansen’s book, by the way, is a story about a struggling writer set in post-WII France.
Yes, The Words is a three-tiered assault of writers writing about writers in an attempt to screw with your head and impress you with its detailed level of complexity.
Except the film isn’t all that complex, and the precise lack of detail is what makes the plot feel so cheap. For example, if we’re supposed to believe the Jansen is a struggling writer in the modern age, where is the modern technology and business practices that now drive the publishing industry? Cooper’s character has written books, and publishers like them. They just don’t know how to sell them. This once was a huge obstacle for aspiring novelists. That was before e-readers, the Amazon.com bookstore, and the ability to self-publish anything you write. Yes, we can assume that the story is set in the past and that Jansen doesn’t have that option, but there’s nothing that hints that The Words is a look back at simpler times, and it’s that lack of attention to detail that makes the film feel like a pseudo-cerebral half-baked potato at most points.
It’s not all bad though. Cooper does put on a great performance, and Jeremy Irons steals the show for the brief time he’s in the movie (he could likely net a Grammy by narrating the back of a Doritos bag if he wanted). The core plot of the film – Jansen’s moral struggle of knowing his success is all due to stolen work, coupled with the anguish of knowing that he could likely never match it’s quality with his own writing – is really an interesting story, but it gets lost among all that forced complexity and is ultimately overshadowed by Hammond’s far less interesting tale which involves Olivia Wilde playing a sexy book-loving femme fatale for no reason whatsoever.
It’s really a shame. Part of the film really does hit a kind of tragic beauty, but it’s only one tier of the three-pronged story and can’t hold the whole movie up on its own. Especially when Dennis Quaid is narrating it (waterboarding, eat your heart out).
It seems The Words wants you to leave the theater with the question “What is real? What is fiction? What is the difference?” echoing through your simplistic mind, but the only thing you’ll be asking yourself is why the you just spent two hours of your life watching it and if there’s anyway to get that time back.
Spoiler: there isn’t.