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‘The Words’ tries too hard to be clever, ends up feeling empty

The Words

Directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal

Written by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal

USA, 2012

The effect of watching The Words is akin to hearing someone read a book report that’s based off the CliffsNotes of the CliffNotes of a popular book. The sheer laziness on display in this would-be character study/thriller about a writer whose zeal for personal and professional gain comes at the cost of an innocent, unknowing life is baffling. Co-writers and co-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal  try very hard to gussy up their story by encouraging actors like Bradley Cooper and Zoe Saldana to share baleful glances, but The Words is an empty, soulless film with nothing to say.

Cooper plays Rory Jansen, a struggling writer who’s tired of getting rejection notices that amount to “Your writing is great, but unmarketable.” While on his honeymoon with his new wife (Saldana), he stumbles upon an old satchel with a typewritten manuscript that inspires him. Unfortunately, it inspires him to write everything on the manuscript, verbatim, onto his laptop. After his wife is moved by the story, Rory decides to turn it into the agency where he works as his own work. One thing leads to another, and Rory is the toast of the literary world, until he’s confronted by an old man (Jeremy Irons) who may have a personal connection to that manuscript.

Anyone who’s ever survived a creative-writing in class in high school or college could probably count on both hands the number of times their professors vehemently instructed them to “show, don’t tell.” Instead of narrating action, describe it in detail, is the basic principle. Though a good number of movies commit this sin, The Words could well be 2012’s gold medalist in the category. If you’re a fan of overly simplistic, crushingly obvious voiceover narration, though, you’re in luck! You’ll get two different narrators, neither of whom are necessary. There’s not a single moment in the film where the narration expands on what the audience is watching. Instead, we’re treated to insight such as when Dennis Quaid tells us that Rory was unable to stop thinking about the manuscript he’d read, as we watch Cooper put a great deal of effort into looking like he can’t stop thinking about…well, the manuscript his character had just read. Either Klugman and Sternthal believe the audience is too dumb to pick up on such subtle clues, or they’re worried that the performers can’t convey these messages.

For the most part, the cast is far too talented to be stranded in this mire. Jeremy Irons is the best thing about The Words, which you can chalk up to the fact that he’s Jeremy Irons. Though he has a bit of difficulty with a basic American accent, he brings a slight but palpable sense of tension to his face-off with Cooper. Cooper and Saldana have decent enough chemistry, but they have so few scenes together that their romance and relationship never once feels fully lived-in. Just as we’re presented with the opportunity to learn more about them, we’re whisked away thanks to Quaid’s narration. He and Olivia Wilde have, perhaps, the two most important roles in the film. (This review will not spoil their importance; it is worth noting that The Words could have, arguably, the same amount of impact without them being present for a single second.) And yet, because they only appear for roughly 15 minutes, spread out over the nearly 100-minute film, neither performer leaves much of an impression.

The concept at play in The Words—delving into what would compel a person to steal someone else’s words and claim them as their own—is fairly novel. Plagiarism in modern society is still fairly pervasive, so trying to dig deep into a person’s character and figure out what makes them tick isn’t a bad idea. The Russian nesting doll-type structure of the film, watching a story within a story within a story, only serves to baffle the audience. On one hand, Klugman and Sternthal are potentially spoon-feeding the audience information they’ve already picked up. On the other hand, their framing devices smack of writers giddy at the very prospect of being oh, so very clever. A story’s success, though, is less about a writer coming up with a good trick, and more about how skillful the writer is in pulling off said trick. Klugman and Sternthal lack the skill.

The Words desperately wants to be an intelligent, insightful drama, one that focuses on the ripple effect an action can have. The mere act of typing a story out on a computer seems harmless, but it can reach back into the past and rip the heart out of an unsuspecting bystander. There’s no question that the kernel of this movie is shrewd. But Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal are unable to expand that kernel into something worth watching. What we’re left with is an overly direct, undercooked melodrama chock-full of vague platitudes, a film bursting with emptiness and fakery, not heart and honesty.

— Josh Spiegel