Movies about novelists frequently fall into the trap of trying to visualize the act of writing. From the point of view of the observer, writing is a sedentary, monotonous activity that does not engage the viewer at the level of, say, a car chase. “The Words” takes the neat tack of trying to capture a writer not at the moment of creation, but at the moment when he chooses to betray the soul of his art by stealing another writer’s work.
The multiple narratives of “The Words” unfold as stories within stories, rather like Russian nesting dolls. Dennis Quaid plays popular novelist Clay Hammond, the author of a story about a young writer Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) whose first efforts at fiction appear promising but not quite publishable. He toils in the mailroom of a literary agency as his dreams of success slowly slip away.
Clay spins this story before a rapt audience in a packed auditorium — rather well attended for a literary event. They clap like trained seals at his prose, which is strangely awful considering that he is so admired. He opens his “book” with the weather, in an echo of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s much maligned line, “It was a dark and stormy night.” But Clay’s mediocrity as a writer is actually an intentional device designed to lure the viewer in to the central mystery of “The Words.”
While on his honeymoon in Paris, Rory stumbles on a valise in an antique shop. Inside, he finds a typescript copy of a short, unpublished novel that astounds him with its depth and power. It’s the story of a young American and his doomed romance with a young and beautiful French woman at the end of World War II. Rory retypes the novel into his own words — ostensibly to experience the feeling of the words flowing through his mind and into his fingers, but really because he has unconsciously formed a plan to appropriate the work as his own.
The novel turns out to be a huge success. Rory is suddenly and improbably famous. His supportive but somewhat doubtful father is proud and impressed, and his wife’s long-standing faith in his talent is redeemed. At the apex of his fame, Rory is brought low by the appearance of the true author of the manuscript, played by Jeremy Irons. He also brings another frame to the narrative, taking us back to Paris after the war to experience the tragic events that led him to write the story that Rory has stolen.
In the only truly convincing performance in the film, Mr. Irons imbues this unnamed old man with a mix of savage wit and a sense of weariness that comes from not being able to sustain bitterness. He’s not seeking public vindication or wealth — he just wants to confront Rory with the moral consequences of his crimes.
“The Words” is surprisingly kinetic, considering its reliance on meta-narrative devices and stories within stories. That said, it’s still largely an intellectual exercise, lacking in humor and oddly untethered to the realities of the literary world it’s trying to portray.
Rory’s insight, and perhaps Clay’s as well, is that there is ultimately no way out of one’s own mediocrity. This is grim stuff to be sure, but it rather undercuts the high-toned and arty style of the film.
TITLE: “The Words”
CREDITS: Written and directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal
RATING: PG-13 for profanity, sexual situations and mendacity
RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS