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Dustin Putman

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The Words  (2012)
2 Stars
Directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal.
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana, Dennis Quaid, Jeremy Irons, Olivia Wilde, Ben Barnes, John Hannah, J.K. Simmons, Ron Rifkin, Zeljko Ivanek, Michael McKean, Nora Arnezeder, James Babson, Brian Klugman, Elizabeth Stauber.
2012 – 96 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for brief strong language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 6, 2012.
"The Words" is a film that has plenty of things to say—about the power of great writing; the touchy relationship between honesty and art; the common human yearning to make something of oneself and the fear that we will never be good enough—but makes a fatal error about how to say them. In trying to establish their points, writer-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal pile no less than three time frames and three different realities on top of what should have been a fairly simple but incisive character drama. By overcomplicating the narrative, the picture's aforementioned thematic musings are strangled to death by a suffocating dollop of contrivance. After a while, the viewer begrudgingly stops caring.

Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) is a revered author whose latest novel, titled "The Words," has taken the publishing world by storm. As an auditorium filled with fans cling to his every syllable, Clay reads aloud the first two sections of his book, spinning the sordid tale of aspiring writer Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper). Frustrated that he's not getting anywhere with his own work, Rory happens upon an old, unmarked manuscript hidden in the lining of a leather satchel he bought at an antique store. The piece—a bittersweet love story between a young WWII soldier (Ben Barnes) and a French gal (Nora Arnezeder) he meets after the war—is out-of-this-world great to the point where Rory begins to doubt his own abilities. In a moment or three of weakness, of wishing that these poetic words could have come through his own fingertips, he types it verbatim onto his computer. When wife Dora (Zoe Saldana) admits to stumbling upon it and being blown away, he makes the rash decision to pass it off as his own writing. Before long, "The Window Tears" is an award winner and published best-seller, with Rory the new literary toast of the town. Deep down inside, he feels like a fraud, but it's not until he is confronted one afternoon by an old man (Jeremy Irons) claiming to be the novel's real author that he must face coming clean about his deceptions.

Had "The Words" focused solely upon Rory's ethical conundrum and the trickle-down effect that one mistruth can have on a person's life and relationships, there is the very plausible possibility that the film might have worked. Certainly the actors are up to the task, with Bradley Cooper (2012's "Hit & Run") never better at playing ingratiating and tortured as Rory Jansen; Zoe Saldana (2010's "The Losers") poignant as wife Dora, faced with a betrayal she is not sure she can overcome; and Jeremy Irons (2009's "The Pink Panther 2") bringing an unforgiving, tough-love resolve to an old man who has watched as someone else takes the credit and accolades he deserves. Where "The Words" gets into trouble is the decision to make central protagonist Rory nothing more than a fictional character in Clay Hammond's novel, thus downgrading and belittling its level of importance in the grand scheme of plot's overblown construction.

Speaking of Clay, his scenes go nowhere very slowly until they dare to suggest going somewhere patently ridiculous. As Daniella, a grad student whose motives for getting closer to Clay are left shady at best, Olivia Wilde (2012's "People Like Us") is stuck playing an obscure part that not even writer-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal seem to fully understand. Finally, the story within a story within a story—that of Clay's plagiarized 1940s-set masterwork—does a poor job of visualizing what everyone seems to think is so special on the written page. Yes, it eventually plays to some of the same themes, blurring fiction with autobiography since, in essence, it's the real-life saga of the old man's younger self, but that doesn't keep it from being any less extraneous.

Why does "The Words" insist upon telling three interlocking subplots when the main one in the middle—Rory's—was so clearly enough? In trying to be cute and corkscrewy, Klugman and Sternthal reveal themselves as the novices they truly are. Confusing flowery, needless tangents for complexity, the movie loses its way to excess, turning a provocative, low-key think piece into a structurally exasperating trifle that ends up saying far less than initially meets the eye. Sometimes, less is more. "The Words" is one of those times.
© 2012 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman