The Faustian dilemma of putting ambition above all else is a familiar motif—from Goethe’s classic to the legend that bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil for success. The Words, written and directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, updates the story for a 21st century audience more familiar with former New York Times journalist Jayson Blair and disgraced Oprah’s Book Club author James Frey (A Million Little Pieces).
Described as both a romantic drama and a thriller, the film doesn’t quite live up to the billing— despite a premise rife with promise and a star-studded cast. The Words is hampered, ironically, by a weak script that uses not-so-subtle references to Ernest Hemingway’s life to hammer home clichés about writers and the craft of writing.
The multilayered, intertwining narrative—a book within a book wrapped in another story—is intrinsically connected by the plagiarism of Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper). When we’re first introduced to the character, he’s the subject of a reading/lecture from famed writer Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid). Rory’s a struggling writer who’s taken two years off from real life to grind out the great American novel. He and girlfriend Dora (Zoe Saldana) don’t have a lot of money, but they’re madly in love. (Their situation can’t be that dire, since they’re living in a ridiculously spacious—we’re guessing rent-controlled—New York City walkup.)
During the next few months, we watch as Rory agonizes over pages, submits his book to agents, starts a “real job” in the mailroom of a publishing house, gets married and travels to Paris on his honeymoon. It’s in Paris—the City of Light and the Lost Generation—that Dora buys her husband a vintage leather briefcase as a wedding present. While wallowing in his own novel’s rejections, he finds an old manuscript hidden inside the satchel. In reading the brilliant work of an unknown author, Rory is hit by the “reality of what he would never become.” Cooper does a good job at portraying a writer who faces the limitations of his talents, a realization that ultimately leads to stealing the work and passing it off as his own. The book becomes a critical and mainstream success; and while he feels guilty about the plagiarism, Rory’s too enamored with adulation and recognition to stop the momentum.
Jeremy Irons plays the Old Man (yes, that’s the character’s name) who confronts Rory in Central Park. It’s his book—his life—that Rory has claimed as his own. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn the manuscript’s origins and its subsequent loss. The Old Man’s story turns out of be the most compelling in the film, but in an anticlimactic denouement, the Old Man wants nothing in return for Rory’s crime. It’s guilt that eventually leads Rory to confess to Dora and his publisher, but the consequences don’t seem fitting for someone who prizes success above all else.
There are awkward shifts between the book-within-a-book characters and plots. We’re never fully vested in rooting for any of the characters, except for the Young Man. Especially unappealing is Hammond’s cocky and smarmy author persona, which is only topped by Olivia Wilde’s throwaway role as a graduate student temptress, who spends most of her scenes ogling the literary superstar from the audience.
The Words aspires to be a film about great literature and the depths a writer will travel to achieve success. But what’s missing from the film is the prose from the lost manuscript—never once do we hear any of the text that caused a man to steal the book, bought his wife to tears or persuaded a publisher to take a chance on the writing of a mail clerk. Ultimately, The Words lacks the words needed to move us, which makes the outcome of this film as unsatisfying for the audience as most deals with the devil prove for those who make them.
Director: Brian Klugman, Lee Sternthal
Writer: Brian Klugman, Lee Sternthal
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana, Jeremy Irons, Dennis Quaid, Olivia Wilde
Release Date: Sept. 7, 2012