Review: 'The Words' Definitely Talks a Lot But Has Very Little to Say
by Jeremy Kirk
September 7, 2012
"Bradley Cooper plays a struggling author, who, when given a fast and easy way to the top, takes it." That's a popular pitch these days with the "fast and easy way" being the driving force for both Limitless and now The Words. Although this latest film has an interesting conceit and fine actors turning in commendable performances, it never pushes itself, resting comfortably on a premise that sounds oh, so enthralling. There's only so much Cooper can do on his own. There's only so much we get from the concept, and though The Words has something to say, it's neither a deep message nor one used to much effect at all.
The "struggling author" Cooper plays here is Rory Jansen. He wants to be famed writer, wants to be able to take care of Dora, his girlfriend played by Zoe Saldana, with this passion he has. But Rory doesn't seem to have it in him. His voice isn't what the public wants to hear, or at least what the publishing agencies tell him the public wants to hear. So when a manuscript falls in Rory's lap, a novel that moves him so much that he questions whether he'll ever be any good, he passes the work off as his own. The plagiarism pays off, and Rory finds all the success he's ever wanted. But it wouldn't be much of a story if there weren't a price to be paid.
Every writer who hasn't found their success yet questions whether or not they're any good, if they have what it takes to go down in history with the great writers of the world. It's an interesting idea that co-writers and co-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal wrap around their central character. Rory Jansen is a layered figure here, and matched with Cooper's solid performance, he comes off as a realistic character who makes realistic choices, even when they're not the most moral of choices. The idea of a writer questioning his skills turns into a morality tale of what one person would do to achieve success at the one thing they want to do most in life. It's a valid starting point, and it's sad that Klugman and Sternthal barely get out of the gate.
All of that is in the setup, though, revealed to us as a novel another writer - this one played by Dennis Quaid, who somehow seems to be getting creepier the more distinguished he gets - is reading to a group of fans. It's in the back half of the film where you quickly discover Klugman and Sternthal didn't have much for their characters to do. A strange, old man played by Jeremy Irons shows up, and you can probably guess pretty quickly what he's all about. From here, we hear his story, and the film flashbacks for large chunks, most of the time revealing information we either don't care about or have already pieced together.
That's where The Words hits its biggest flaw. Once you know where the story is headed, and it doesn't take the world's smartest moviegoer to connect these dots, the film doesn't have much else for us. There are moments of drama, particularly in those flashbacks, and some of them are effective enough. But it quickly becomes a game to see how many times you can look at your watch before everyone is done telling their stories. The wrap-around, the one with Quaid serving as our narrator and Olivia Wilde showing up to get another name on the poster, comes to a point, but it too is predictable and, ultimately, unearned.
The film's best element is found in the relationship between Rory and Dora. Everyone - and even the world, it seems - is telling Rory he shouldn't continue this quest for notoriety in his writing. He should give up the dream and find a "real job." An early scene between Rory and his father, played with all the familiar allure J.K. Simmons brings to the table, is blunt but honest. It also helps strengthen the Rory/Dora bond we see in their scenes together. She supports his dream completely. Though this aspect never seems fully realized and quickly takes a backseat once creepy Jeremy Irons shows up, it's definitely something of note.
Cooper and Saldana make that relationship go a long way, as well. Neither of them are given much to do in the last half of The Words, especially when Irons is around. Those scenes involve a lot of Cooper watching the veteran actor telling a story. For what he has to do, Irons gives it his all, like he always does. There's a playfulness in some of his delivery, a winking nod to his identity and what that means for Rory, but this is also hurt by the predictability of the character's intentions. By the time he's actually given something of substance to do here, the wheels have already spun the interest out of the story.
The Words struggles early, and it struggles often. Glimmers of hope for something more interesting, exciting, thrilling, or even engaging pop up here and there, mostly stemming from something one of the talented actors has done with a character or scene. More often than not this could be enough to make up for lackluster structure and unremarkable directing. Unfortunately, with The Words, there's far too much iteration and reiteration of a central theme most will know walking into the theater. It never does anything with its premise, merely raises a "Would you…?" question up to its audience and asks it. Consequences are shown - Actually, they're just told to us in the film's rushed and overly confusing climax - but The Words, for all the talking that it contains, never tries to say anything inventive or exciting.
Jeremy's Rating: 5 out of 10