Review: The Words

The Words - Bradley Cooper and Zoe Saldana

This story-within-a-story needs more words to flesh it out beyond its contrived self-satisfied narrative.

The Words (2012)

The Words poster (Australia)

DirectorBrian Klugman, Lee Sternthal

WriterBrian KlugmanLee Sternthal

Runtime: 96 minutes

Starring: Bradley CooperOlivia WildeZoe SaldanaJeremy IronsBen BarnesDennis Quaid

DistributorBecker Film Group

Country: US

Rating (?)Rental for Sure (★★)

More info

For anybody that has ever put pen to paper, or fingers to their keyboard, there follows a perpetual cloud of angst as to whether it is any good. Some struggle with this forever, crippled by self doubt, while the rare acolytes amongst achieve greatness. It is a shame then that writer/directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal didn’t sweat a little longer over their script for The Words, or perhaps even read it, following the same contrived conventions that their central figure strives to overcome. The narrative equivalent of a Russian nesting doll, except at least one of them has a wobbly bottom and doesn’t quite sit right.

Famous novelist Clayton Hammond (Dennis Quaid) gives a public reading of his latest book, The Words. It focuses on Rory (Bradley Cooper), a struggling writer who lives with his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana). Thanks to his father (J.K. Simmons), Rory gets a job in the mailroom of a publisher, but fails to get his first script sold. However, after a honeymoon trip to Paris, Rory finds an unpublished manuscript in a briefcase. After retyping it, he sparks an irreversible chain of events that leads to the successful publishing and acclaim of the novel. Rory soon forgets his deception, until he encounters an elderly gentleman (Jeremy Irons), who has his own story to tell. Meanwhile, at the reading of The Words, Clayton meets beautiful student Daniella (Olivia Wilde), a pseudo-stalker who has a few questions of her own.

On the surface, The Words seems like an intriguingly clever concept. The three stories within one that it presents might be a tried and true literary device, but formulas tend to keep getting used for a reason. The issue here is that Klugman and Sternthal never get beyond the conceit, filling each of its three stories with only the barest of character detail and never allowing any of them to penetrate any deeper than that surface sheen. Cooper and Saldana certainly imbue their characters with the enthusiasm of young love, albeit with Cooper only a few shades away from his similar turn in Limitless, but their struggle is undermined not only by their lack of development, but by the lingering possibility that they may not actually exist outside of fiction. When a creaking Jeremy Irons turns up to spin his own tale, we are transported away to another time with a younger self (Ben Barnes), to a story which may have also been engaging if we have more than a few precious moments of screen time with his younger self.

The framing technique uses Dennis Quaid narrating the story in two parts: to an audience, and then less reliably to the gorgeous Olivia Wilde, whose motives remain ambiguously irrelevant to the end. She seems to be after something from  Clayton, but neither she nor the audience can be bothered articulating it further. Like The Words itself, she is frustratingly close to something important and intriguing, but never manages to get any closer to her subject that its architects will allow.

The Words was released in Australia on 11 October 2012 from Becker Film Group.