The greatest works of art -- paintings, books, films, etc. -- don’t just offer escapism, but also provide us the unique opportunity to venture deep within ourselves and find out who we really are. They present us with painful decisions and soul-searching scenarios that gently encourage us to confront our true character, and though it may sound like a heady concept, nothing could be more direct or straightforward. The same could be said about The Words, a movie centering on a writer who achieves his dreams of greatness by stealing another man’s work, only to be reminded of his shortcomings by the crushing weight of his guilt. It’s a film that addresses some pretty profound issues in a way that everyone can relate to, and does it with an elegant sense of brevity that draws the viewer in on an emotional level without coming off as overindulgent or overwrought.
As the picture opens, we find accomplished author Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) performing a public reading from his latest novel about a hungry young writer named Rory (Bradley Cooper), who’s determined to pen the next great American novel. Upon completing his ambitious tome, Rory faces rejection from nearly every publisher in New York City. Although success eludes him, he gets a day job at a publishing company and marries his longtime girlfriend Dora (Zoe Saldana). Later, while honeymooning in Paris, Rory happens upon a weathered attache case in a small boutique. Examining the contents of the briefcase, he discovers a brilliant manuscript that leaves him frozen with fear. He knows he will never write anything this good, and in order to better understand The Words on the pages, he begins typing them into his computer. Later, Dora finds the rewritten novel and, mistaking it for Rory’s own, convinces him to approach a publisher. The book is an instant hit, and before he knows it, Rory is the darling of the New York literary scene. But upon meeting the “Old Man” (Jeremy Irons) who authored the book he claims to have written, Rory is confronted with his own failings and dishonesty in a way that leaves him deeply shaken, and he desperately searches for a means of making things right. And in the present, after his reading concludes Hammond encounters a beautiful young admirer (Olivia Wilde) whose probing questions threaten to shatter his fragile facade and reveal a carefully concealed truth.
The Words is the first film from co-writers/co-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, whose only prior feature collaboration was (somewhat curiously) working together on the story for Tron: Legacy. With the possible exception of Wilde’s presence in both movies, The Words couldn’t be more different from the glowing sci-fi spectacle that cemented their partnership. A complex yet efficient and emotionally involving tale of a man trapped in a lie of his own making, it may be set in the haughty world of New York literati, but it explores a universal theme -- the feeling that we were meant for something more than we’ve actually achieved, and that we haven’t lived up to our true potential.
Although the concept of self-actualization would seem to lead to overindulgence on the part of the writers, what we get instead is a tale that’s both effective and intimate as Klugman and Sternthal take great care to balance two vastly different storylines set in two distinctly different eras. The writers know that the success of this movie lies in the audience’s ability to relate to the characters, and by allowing their actors the opportunity to inhabit these people as they grapple with personal tragedy and failing self-worth -- without sinking into self-indulgent melodrama -- Klugman and Sternthal create a poignant study of morality that refuses to offer any easy answers. Though that may be frustrating for moviegoers who prefer their stories all wrapped up in a pretty bow by the time the credits roll, there’s something to be said for the ambiguity of a screenplay that recognizes that approach but consciously rejects it.
Meanwhile, the actors walk that fine line with a vulnerability that brings the script to life. As the starving writer who has fallen victim to his own insecurities and inability to tell the truth, Cooper makes Rory a deeply relatable character, even (or perhaps especially) after it’s become clear that he’s drowning in his own dishonesty. Irons is the embodiment of weary wisdom -- a man determined to tell his story, but uninterested in reprisals or revenge. And although they have precious few lines to speak since most of their scenes are told through narration, Ben Barnes and Nora Arnezeder tell the Old Man’s story with an emotional resonance that extends to the events in the present day, where Quaid alternates between swaggering bravado and guarded secrecy like a man who has lived in fear for longer than he cares to recall. And the great acting is complimented perfectly by Antonio Calvache’s artful cinematography -- appropriately slick in the present-day scenes and grainy in a way that feels like fading memories in the past ones -- and Marcelo Zarvos’ exquisite strings score.
Few films manage to convey the beauty of life’s uncertainty in a way that’s genuinely affecting, but Klugman and Sternthal achieve that rare feat, and they do so within the context of a story that, while perhaps not entirely original, still manages to stir the soul. This approach may not sit well for the intellectually impatient, but those willing to accept the movie on its own terms will almost certainly savor the opportunity to ponder the many engaging questions that it poses.