With Bradley Cooper, Dennis Quaid, Zoe Saldana, Jeremy Irons, Olivia Wilde. Written by Brian Klugman, Lee Sternthal. Directed by Brian Klugman, Lee Sternthal. Rated PG-13 (for brief strong language and smoking). 96 minutes.
It will be interesting to see how THE WORDS plays with general audiences. It is a romantic tragedy about the life of being a writer, meaning that many reviewers may “get” what is going on here the way non-writers may not. Whether others will relate to the tragic elements remains to be seen.
Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) is a phenomenally successful writer who has written a novel about Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), a phenomenally successful writer. As Clay does a public reading of his novel about Rory, we learn that Rory has struggled to get heard, with publisher after publisher rejecting his work. Finally, he gets published and is celebrated as one of the greatest writers of his generation. It is at that point that he is visited by a character identified only as “The Old Man” (Jeremy Irons), who has something to say about Rory’s novel.
Some reviewers may give the major twist away, but this reviewer will not. Suffice to say this is a movie about the life of a writer. While the plot requires Clay to be wealthy and successful, most writers – including this reviewer (whose sixth book is being published in January -Ed) – are not. So the real question is why a writer writes. Is it for financial success? Is it for personal recognition? Is it for self-expression? Or is it to communicate to one’s audience?
Each of these ideas is explored in turn and the ultimate answer seems to be that a writer writes because he or she has no other alternative but to put words on paper and hope others will want to read them. Yet “The Words” wants us to understand what motivates a writer. As we learn the details of the story that Clay has written, we have to wonder if Rory’s feelings of guilt are autobiographical or merely psychological. It’s not unusual for successful people to feel their success came too easy and they are really frauds. That doesn’t mean that people will relate to the angst writers experience.
Although the film does not have a straightforward structure – what with flashbacks and fictional narratives intermingling – it is not difficult to follow. The key to getting the film is whether you care about what’s at stake. What makes it work are the three male leads of Quaid, Cooper, and Irons, each of whom have their own issues and who have to decide how to proceed. If no one ends up happy, then one has to wonder what the writer’s life is all about. Is it about getting the words on paper or getting them read? Is it about getting them published or being known as a success? “The Words” offers us conflicting answers.
Will you be engrossed in the struggle of a writer to be heard? If you are engaged, this can be a moving and disturbing story. If not, “The Words” will be just that: a collection of words pouring out of the mouths of the various characters, most of whom you may dismiss as whining. More so than some movies, this is one that turns on how you relate to the players. It’s the sort of movie that seems custom-made to develop a cult following rather than achieving box office success.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.