‘The story’ is arguably the greatest artistic achievement mankind has ever accomplished. Historically, the stories found in books have oftentimes communicated so much more and in far easier fashion than the spoken word can ever aspire to, especially a damn well written story. Books reveal far more about who humans are than humans would be willing to admit or are even capable of fathoming in an everyday basis. One should not however overlook stage plays, on radio, television and film, all of which possess their own inexplicable powers in conveying the many fascinating aspects of the human condition. Words being a commonality between all cultures the world over, is the ownership of the words per say in various art forms of the utmost importance, or does their eventual impact on their admirers supplant any legitimate concerns of propriety? The relative newcomer directing duo and Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, also acting as screenwriters, bring forth their first major feature, The Words, a film which mulls over the power of the act of storytelling and how much it can mean when having one’s words stolen.
In New York (Montréal, Canada masquerading as Manhattan, in fact), a young couple, Rory and Dora Jansen (Bradley Cooper and Zoe Saldana) are finally reaping the rewards of high societal lifestyle. Rory had, for some years, struggled to make headway as an author in the excruciatingly difficult world of the book publishing industry. Editors had praised his profoundly intellectual stories about inner turmoil, but concluded them to be too distant to engage enough readers. Needing money from his loving if slightly disappointed father (J.K.Simmons) to pay some of the bills is not what he had in mind, especially after marriage. Then arrives the day when, upon fiddling through an old leather hand bag Dora bought him in Paris while on their honeymoon, Rory discovers some old, tainted pages. It is a manuscript, in fact, a rough draft of a love story, one that rocks Rory to his very core. There is no name attached, which plants the seeds of an idea into the protagonist’s mind: try to have the story published under his own name. The plan is a success, and with that Rory enjoys the benefits of both massive critical and monetary success, only for reality to bite in a remarkably embarrassing way. One day, while relaxing in the park, an old man (Jeremy Irons) amicably makes his acquaintance, but after the pleasantries a stunning revelation is made…
‘the story… is so good on paper that top class actors would be hard pressed to refuse the offer to partake in the filmmaking process anyways.’
Brian Klugmann and Lee Sternthal may be mostly new the movie making industry (Sternthal’s most notable work prior to The Words is basically a screenwriting credit on 2010’s Tron:Legacy), and apart from a few unfortunate misfires in the final third, ironically enough said misfires reside mostly with the script, it would be hard to discern any sense of storytelling immaturity. One need only take note of the enviable cast, which included, Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana, J.K. Simmons, Jeremy Irons, Olivia Wilde and Dennis Quaid as the top billed actors to comprehend that they know what they are up to. Few young gun directors can claim to have nabbed such a stunning cast for their feature-length debut. While a long time friendship between star Bradley Cooper and the directors certainly helped in aligning the stars, another crucial element in this film’s building blocks is the story, which is so good on paper that top class actors would be hard pressed to refuse the offer to partake in the filmmaking process anyways.
The plot and the themes it espouses are equally powerful, and even though, as previously stated, the film’s home stretches encounters a few unfortunate bumps, The Words nevertheless makes a statement that two very interesting directors have landed onto the scene and critics as well as movie goers should pay attention. The story’s sprawling structure goes beyond a simple matter of dealing with a single storyline, with Klugman and Sternthal aiming much higher than a debutant normally does. The plot synopsis provided above, in truth, covers but one of three different layers which make up The Words. The trial and tribulations of Cooper’s Rory Jensen consist of the primary plot thread of author Clay Hammond’s (Dennis Quaid) latest book, a book given the same name as the film’s title. The portions of Rory’s life that the viewers see depicted on screen are but the two chapters Clay has agreed to read at a prestigious literary gathering, a an event attended by recent literature student Danielle (Olivia Wilde), who wants nothing more than to spend an evening with her idol to satisfy some inner passions, and of course find out what happens to his characters after Clay has, let us say, wet her appetite. That is the outermost layer of the framing device utilized in the picture. The inner most layer is when the old man explains to Rory where the former found the inspiration to write his emotionally gripping love story many years ago as a young man (Ben Barnes) living in Paris with his wife (Nora Arnezeder), a marriage that eventually failed them both. Naturally one can make the case that the fourth layer is the film directors Klugman and Sternthal are giving the audience. A far more complex pyramidal methodology than most directors venture into. The duo handle them with deft, with care and maturity.
‘…when the directors cut to a different reality within their movie, the viewer may be taken aback given how invested they were in the immediacy of the plot thread developing at the moment the scene cut.’
Two important elements can surmise just how effectively The Words develops to enrapture its audience. The first is that, despite all the fuss about the old man’s story, it is never fully revealed in the plot. The fact that it is powerful enough to echo in the hearts of the characters who are from different nations, cultures and eras is enough for the audience to accept it as such and works perfectly as the source of all the contention in Clay Hammond’s book, and by extension the overall movie itself. The second is that, on more than one occasion, when the directors cut to a different reality within their movie, the viewer may be taken aback given how invested they were in the immediacy of the plot thread developing at the moment the scene cut. Therein lies what may be considered the film’s crowning achievement, that is, having the viewers lose themselves in not just one of the stories, but all three. The old man’s revelations are so well told and acted that when the movies shifts back to the Central Park bench where Jeremy Irons is relating the facts to Bradley Cooper, it comes as a surprise, just as the cuts back to Clay Hammond’s world are unexpected considering how compelling the story of Rory and Dora is. In that sense The Words functions on a ‘meta’ level, and a convincing one at that. What it boils down to is the power of stories and the hold they can have on listeners, readers and viewers. In one of the film’s most powerfully subtle moments which propel this theme, the audience is taken away from 1940s France where a young romance has been blossoming and back to Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Irons. When the old man first hinted that he was the creator of the story Rory plagiarized, the latter’s reaction was of utter embarrassment. Now, deeply invested in what the senior citizen has been saying, embarrassment is no longer even a factor, as Rory listens attentively, wanting with each breath what happens next. Another arrives later on when Danielle voices her disappointment to the conclusion of Clay Hammond’s book.
Had the film concentrated its efforts in developing the theme of storytelling’s allure and its influence on people juxtaposed against the often frustrating matter of the legalities of copyright, The Words could very well have been a masterpiece. Alas, the film diverges from that idea in the latter scenes, preferring to take a closer and slightly more blunt, literal look at the mistakes made by the Rory Jensen character, not to mention tying them into, not terribly convincingly either, to a mistake Clay Hammond might be engaging in by accepting the young Danielle into his home. True enough, Rory committed an atrocious, supremely unethical error, one that must be dealt with in one way or another, yet because of that the concluding minutes of the film make every other idea explored up until then rather murky. There is a nice attempt at recalling the original theme when Clay challenges Danielle to come up with a superior, more emotionally satisfying end to his book, but it does not gel as well as most of what came before, hence the Clay-Danielle angle ultimately comes off as the weakest of the three threads.
One short note should go to the cast, with Bradley Cooper earning special attention. It goes without saying that Jeremy Irons, J.K. Simmons, Zoe Saldana and Olivia Wilde are good seeing as they often garner acclaim. Cooper is the revelation here, clearly giving the best performance of his career and possibly, at the risk of rubbing some the wrong way, the best performance in the film. Rory is not a bad person. In fact, he is an all around decent chap, but when faced with defeat upon defeat despite his best efforts, fate teases him in such a way that the cannot possibly refuse and in giving in he commits the greatest mistake of his life. Never does the viewer turn on Rory. In fact, even though he has made a mistake, Cooper’s nuanced, complicated and believable performance ensures that the viewer will never view him as a bad person even though he has done some serious wrong.
It is a shame that the movie’s final lap to the finish line does not hold together as powerfully as all the beautiful setup. It certainly does not end poorly, but there is something elemental, subtle that it lacks. What might the movie have been had it made some different decisions for the finale no one will ever know. Notwithstanding those minor complaints, The Words is a beautifully structured and acted movie, carrying the thematic and dramatic weight worthy of such its impressive cast. If it is any indication of the sort of movies directors Klugman and Sternthall will make in the future, their career looks bright. The Words is definitely one of the year’s best films.