Release Date: September 7, 2012
Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language and smoking
Run Time: 96 min.
Director: Brian Klugman, Lee Sternthal
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Irons, Zoe Saldana, Olivia Wilde, Ben Barnes, Nora Arnezeder, J.K. Simmons
“Sit down. Let me tell you a story,” says the Old Man (Jeremy Irons, Kingdom of Heaven) to no-longer-struggling writer Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper, Hit and Run). Rory has a best-seller to his credit. The only problem is he didn’t write it. The true author is the Old Man.
The Old Man’s story to Rory is the second, not the first, of the stories weaved by The Words, directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, who collaborated on the screenplay. Their previous credit, Tron: Legacy, was a cold, mechanical film about an alternate world. Its most memorable element was its soundtrack.
The Words is a more human story about love, professional success, and the line between truth and fiction—themes that have universal appeal. But even with a likable cast, The Words feels like a long discussion without much takeaway value. It tries to deliver a moral about choosing real life over living a lie, but the point comes across as tepid rather than deeply resonant.
Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid, revisiting familiar territory for those old enough to remember 1988's D.O.A., in which plagiarism likewise drove the plot) is an author with a devoted following. The Words opens with him reading from his new book, which tells the story of Rory and the Old Man. In this tale, which incessantly returns to Hammond’s voiceover narration in case we’ve forgotten that he’s telling the story, Rory is a writer who finally drums up interest in one of his books, only to be told that his work, while promising, is unpublishable. His father (J.K. Simmons, Juno) underwrites Rory’s lifestyle, but tells his son it’s time to give up writing as a full-time occupation.
“Get a job. Support yourself,” he tells Rory. “That’s just part of being a man. Another part of being a man is accepting your own limitations.”
Rory is slow to accept that reality. On a trip to Paris, his girlfriend, Dora (Zoe Saldana, Avatar), buys him an old satchel in which Rory will discover a stashed manuscript. Smitten with the prose, Rory types the words into his computer, where they’re promptly seen by Dora. Her intense, emotional reaction to the words, which she believes to be Rory’s, encourages him to show the manuscript to an agent. Soon the book is published under Rory’s name and titled The Window Tears. Interest in his earlier, unpublished works now skyrockets.
Rory thinks he’s in the clear until the Old Man finds him, follows him and tells him the story behind the manuscript, at which point The Words launches yet another story. This one is the tale of the Old Man’s time in Europe, where he fell in love, got married and had a child. When tragedy struck, he sat at a typewriter and wrote The Window Tears over several sorrow-fueled days, only to have his wife leave the manuscript on a train. Decades later, the Old Man discovers that the story has been published... under Rory’s name.
What does the Old Man want from Rory? A confession? A recantation? And why is this story within a story being recounted by Quaid's Hammond character? How do these stories and characters tie together? The film’s answer to these questions is weak.
The Words wants to make a point about the choices we make in life, and the way in which we can build our lives and reputations on falsities (Proverbs 21:6). That’s a potent theme, but The Words has nothing fresh to say on the topic. Any impact is muted by the story-within-a-story-within-a-story structure; a more straightforward presentation would have been more effective.
Cooper and Saldana are more than adequate in their roles, but they can’t hold a candle to Irons, who steals the movie as the Old Man despite the distraction of bad old-age makeup. After Leonardo DiCaprio’s terrible makeup in J. Edgar and Guy Pearce’s horrendous old-age makeup in Prometheus, it appears a trend has developed. Why can movie studios create realistic other worlds through special effects, but fail to convince us that a human actor has embodied a character much older than himself?
The Words wants us to leave pondering life’s big questions and the Old Man’s wisdom. It wants us to consider the ramifications of our choices. Instead, I came away thinking about the filmmakers' choices to put Irons in bad makeup and to tell the story via a convoluted structure rather than the pointed options the Old Man presents Rory "between life and fiction."
- Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; “bulls---”; “pi-- ant”; “dumba--”; “a--”; “s-it”; the “f”-word
- Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: Reference to a book’s description of wine tasting; smoking; drinking; Rory gets drunk
- Sex/Nudity: Lovers kiss while lying on a mattress; woman shakes her backside at a man; several similar shots of Rory and Dora laying in bed, with Dora’s arm around a bare-chested Rory; passionate kissing within a dream sequence; in dim light, Rory puts on his shirt; references to a book’s description of love-making
- Violence/Crime: Dead body covered by a sheet; a dead baby; a woman slaps a man
- Marriage/Religion: Rory and Dora get married at City Hall; a soldier marries his girlfriend
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