Directed by Brian Klugman, Lee Sternthal
Screenplay by Brian Klugman, Lee Sternthal
Bradley Cooper, Olivia Wilde, Zoe Saldana, Jeremy Irons, Ben Barnes, Dennis Quaid
How long is The Words? 96 minutes.
What is The Words rated? PG-13 for brief strong language and smoking.
A film that aspires to greatness, but falls short.
In an age when originality is almost anathema to filmmaking (Hollywood, especially), it is exciting and refreshing when a film dares to take a risk by telling a story not based on a comic book, a 70s television show or a Broadway musical. The Words, written and directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, is just such a film that, while not a great movie as a whole, does possess several inspired moments and at least tries to tell a story in a unique way.
The film has a bit of a down-the-rabbit-hole approach to its storytelling, but Klugman and Sternthal guide the audience through the plot fairly well as we listen to a story within a story within a story. Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) is a successful novelist whose latest book, The Words, is being heralded as a brilliant work of fiction. At an invitation only reading, Clay meets a fan (to put it lightly) named Daniella (Olivia Wilde) who knows everything about him…seriously. She knows his childhood dog’s name, his favorite wine and that he is currently separated from his wife. It would be creepy and stalker-ish if she wasn’t so incredibly beautiful.
As Clay reads aloud the first two parts of his book, we enter the world of his novel where we meet struggling novelist Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) and his supportive wife Dora (Zoe Saldana). Rory is told that the novel on which he has spent three years of his life is too insular and self-reflective to be able to market. When he is at his lowest point, he discovers a hand-written manuscript that knocks the air out of him with its poetic language and powerful story. It is the story Rory wishes he could have written. In an accidental turn of events, Dora discovers the manuscript (which Rory typed so as to be able to “feel” the words) and tells him it is amazing and that he has to publish it. He does and he becomes lauded as the new darling of the New York publishing elite.
Rory’s train goes off the tracks when he meets an Old Man (Jeremy Irons) who wants to tell him a story. It’s about a Young Man (Ben Barnes) who meets a girl named Celia (Nora Arnezeder) in Paris. The two fall madly in love, but life tragically tears them apart. As he listens to the Old Man’s story, Rory’s world comes crashing down around him as he realizes that the Old Man is the one who wrote the manuscript so many years ago. As Rory is faced with an ethical dilemma, we also learn that Clay, after his reading has concluded, faces a dilemma of his own as Daniella begins asking questions whose answers may get him in trouble.
The Words is the first feature film for Klugman and Sternthal (Klugman having received one of the many writing credits on TRON: Legacy) and it shows that the partnership may prove fruitful in the future. Both as writers and directors, the two show maturity and confidence not typical for new filmmakers. They believe in their story and that attack it with a verve not usually felt in mainstream movies. For that, they deserve credit and appreciation from any moviegoer who is tired of CGI and superheroes.
The film fails, though, because, while the concept is wonderful and engaging, Klugman and Sternthal do not pay close enough attention to the details. For example, we hear much of Clay’s writing from Quaid’s narration. Listening to only those pieces, it would be hard to miss that Clay is a terrible writer and lacks any narrative ability. Had Klugman and Sternthal matched the words we hear Clay speak to the lavish praise that is bestowed upon him, we could believe that he is a successful writer. Based on what we hear, though, he sounds about as hackneyed as a William Faulkner rip-off.
Another detail the filmmakers overlook is in their use of Montreal as a double for New York City. The two cities look nothing alike. Every exterior (and for that matter, interior) shot just serves as a reminder that Rory and Dora are not walking the streets of New York. Obviously, budgetary restraints played a part in moving the production to Montreal, but the directors should have known that their fake New York is about as bad as trying to pass St. Louis off as Los Angeles.
The cast does a fine job overall, Cooper, especially, who flexes some previously unseen emotional chops. Saldana, who is always wonderful to watch, gives much more depth to a character that is written as a one-dimensional supporting player. Most impressive, though, are Barnes and Arnezeder who bring a tremendous amount of emotional weight to the film. Most of their story is told without dialogue (only Irons’ narration), but the two have no problem communicating the range of emotions their characters experience. Irons is quite good through most of the movie, though he seems slightly unsure as to whether the Old Man is harmless for Rory or not.
While The Words is not a great or even very good movie, the filmmakers deserve a great amount of respect for bringing to light a story about which they are so passionate. We can only hope that the talent that is present in this film will lead the two men to more projects that will allow them to evolve and grow as it is clear they have the potential to be excellent filmmakers.
Matthew Newlin lives in St. Louis, Missouri and has been a film critic for over six years. He has written for numerous online media outlets, including “Playback:STL” and “The Weissman Report.” He holds a Master’s of Education in Higher Education from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and is an Assistant Director of Financial Aid. A lifelong student of cinema, his passion for film was inherited from his father who never said “No, you can’t watch that.”