Movie review: Does ‘The Words’ tell an effective story?

Anyone who’s tried to make a living as a writer likely knows all-too-well the pain of rejection. You spend months, maybe years, crafting your first novel, pouring your heart and soul into your work and praying this book will be your ticket to the success you’ve always dreamed about. You send your manuscript off to literary agents and book publishers, so full of hope and promise. And then … you discover the heartbreaking letdown of your first rejection letter. The more of these letters you receive, the more you begin to doubt yourself, until finally, you reach the moment you’ve always dreaded — the moment where you have to ask yourself if maybe it’s time to let go of that dream.

This is the place struggling 30-something writer Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) has reached. He’s dreamed of becoming a writer for a long time, but when he finally finishes his novel, he’s informed it is well-written but just not publishable. Scores of rejection letters follow as he tries to send his novel off to other publishers, and he feels his life and his dreams slowly beginning to unravel. He’s just about to give up when he happens upon an intriguing but ethically questionable opportunity.

He finds a manuscript inside an antique briefcase his wife (Zoe Saldana) purchased for him on their honeymoon in Paris. The author didn’t place his or her name on the manuscript, but the minute Rory starts reading it, he realizes it’s brilliant. He ends up retyping the novel, just to see what it would feel like to write those words, and then his wife reads it, mistaking it for his own and urging him to try to get it published. Though he knows deep down it isn’t right, Rory markets the manuscript as his own, and he becomes a literary sensation. He keeps trying to bury his lingering guilt, and he almost succeeds until one day he meets a mysterious elderly man (Jeremy Irons) who wants to tell him a story — the story of how he is the actual author of Rory’s book, and about the heartbreak that drove him to write the words in that book. Now Rory is faced with a terrible choice: Does he tell the truth and ruin his own career, or does he continue to carry this horrible secret, knowing the pain his lie has caused the book’s real author?

“The Words” weaves several story lines together, using an author (Dennis Quaid) who may also be guilty of plagiarism to narrate Rory’s story, as well as the old man’s story through flashbacks. Although it’s not a flawless film, I did enjoy it, and it has an interesting narrative concept.

The film makers have assembled a strong ensemble cast that includes Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Irons, Zoe Saldana, Dennis Quaid, Olivia Wilde and Ben Barnes. Cooper turns in a fine, understated performance here as Rory. His character smiles and tries to go through the motions, but you can always see the lingering pain in his eyes that shows what keeping this secret has cost him. Irons also is excellent in his role as the unnamed “Old Man”; he tells his story with such power and conviction that it commands Rory’s attention, and it will command the audience’s attention, as well. Ben Barnes does a nice job as a younger version of the “Old Man,” beginning the tale with a sense of wide-eyed, innocent charm and then slowly losing that idealism as life strips away his dreams. The parts where Jeremy Irons is telling his character’s story, and the flashbacks to World War II era France, are the strongest parts of the movie, along with the interactions between Rory and the Old Man.

The film’s weak link is probably the plot thread involving Dennis Quaid as the author Clay Hammond and Olivia Wilde as his very persistent fan. Although this plot thread is intended to tie the rest of the story together, upon reflection I felt this particular story line wasn’t really necessary, and it detracts from the power of Rory and the Old Man’s stories. I do like complex plots that blend multiple layers of narrative together, but I think in this case, less would have been more. Rory and the Old Man are the most compelling characters in the film, and I wish the film makers had kept the focus on them. Cutting out the Dennis Quaid/Olivia Wilde plot line also may have given the film makers more time to show Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Irons’ characters interacting, and tell how Rory’s final decision regarding what to do about the Old Man’s revelation impacts his life and his long-term career as a writer.

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