United States, 2012
U.S. Release Date:
PG-13 (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio:
Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana, Jeremy Irons, Ben Barnes, Nora Arnezeder, Dennis Quaid, Olivia Wilde
Brian Klugman, Lee Sternthal
Brian Klugman & Lee Sternthal
Nicholas Sparks wasn't involved with the development of The Words, but he might as well have been. There's a distinctly "Sparks-ian" feel to the movie, and its awkward framing device recalls the one from The Notebook. In fact, structure more than tone is The Words' greatest failing. For the most part, it's an adequate romantic drama orbiting an intriguing moral dilemma, but the decision to use a three-layered approach to tell the story makes little sense from a dramatic or narrative perspective.
The "outer layer" of The Words involves author Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) reading excerpts from his new book, The Words, while flirting with a fan (Olivia Wilde). He reads for a while, talks to her during a break, reads some more, then invites her to his home. The majority of the movie's running time relates the story-within-the-story, as recounted by Clay. This features a struggling writer, Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), who sees a chance for a breakthrough when he finds a beautifully written story in a used valise he buys in a Paris shop. He passes it off as its own and becomes an international sensation, winning adulation and becoming rich. His wife, Dora (Zoe Saldana), unwittingly plunges a knife into his troubled conscience by saying the book reveals things about him she never realized were there. Then, one day, Rory meets an old man (Jeremy Irons). He tells Rory a story about a young G.I. (Ben Barnes) in post-World War II France who met and married a beautiful young woman (Nora Arnezeder). They had a child whose death placed an unimaginable strain on their marriage. To recover, the man poured his heart into a novel, but it was accidentally left on a train and became lost. That is the book Rory published.
There is little purpose to the wrap-around story beyond providing Quaid and Wilde with paychecks. Their characters aren't simply underdeveloped; they're undeveloped. The situation is absurd; Wilde plays her character like a woman with a secret to hide, so it comes as a surprise that she is exactly what she seems to be: an overzealous fan. Not only do these segments fail to work in their own right but they undermine Rory's more compelling narrative by hijacking closure and offering instead a menu of possible endings. The only tale undisturbed by Clay's presence is the late-'40s material because it's sufficiently insulated.
The Words attempts to draw parallels between the different stories, but too much connective tissue is missing. On the whole, there's a sense that the project started life as a longer and more complex examination of love but was considerably reduced along the way. The element that survives is Rory's ethical dilemma regarding publishing another man's work under his name, especially when that man comes forward. That aspect of The Words is effectively developed and well handled. We can feel Rory's guilt and understand the uneasy excuses he concocts to placate his conscience. On the night he receives a prestigious award, there's little happiness for him. He laments that "it was only supposed to be a small book."
A fair amount of screen time in The Words is devoted to the craft of writing, especially when it details Rory's struggles. Unlike the recent Ruby Sparks, however, the film doesn't connect with the writer's mindset. This is more about the process of writing than it is about the inspiration. It's more about getting a book published than it is about falling in love with a character. Nevertheless, the filmmakers' understanding of the publishing industry indicates some degree of first-hand experience. They know the disappointments and pitfalls too intimately for this to be a "good guess."
Ultimately, The Words is frustrating not because it's an uninteresting movie, but because there's a sense that something better and more ambitious lurks without achieving escape velocity. The performances, excepting perhaps Olivia Wilde's odd turn, are solid, and the central story never loses our attention, but there's a lingering aftertaste of vague dissatisfaction. And, while The Words is a love story with its share of Nicholas Sparks moments, it never gels into the sort of sudsy melodrama that could have made it more of a guilty pleasure.
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