The Words” is a quiet, literary movie featuring three different novelists whose lives and works intertwine. The character with the most screen time is Rory Jansen, played by Bradley Cooper. Jansen is also the lead character in a novel entitled “The Words” by another contemporary writer, Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid). Both of these men become critical and financial successes, doing readings before large crowds and lauded by the literary press.
A third, decidedly less successful, novelist, played by Jeremy Irons, occupies a key role in the story (or stories), though his character is known only as The Old Man. If you catch a distant echo of Hemingway here, your hearing is acute and correct. In fact, Hemingway, the man and the legend, figure prominently throughout. Like him, as a young man (played by Ben Barnes) living in postwar Paris, the movie’s anonymous writer turned out stories for small literary journals, married and had a child, and suffered the loss of a manuscript which his wife (Nora Arnezeder) left on a train, as did Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley.
First-time screenwriters/directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal underline the Hemingway resemblance not too subtly, repeatedly showing “The Sun Also Rises,” the famous writer’s breakout novel about the Lost Generation in post-WWI, in flashbacks. So when Jansen discovers a yellowing manuscript in a briefcase that his wife, Dora (Zoe Saldana), bought for him in a Parisian antique store, we have already been clued in somewhat about what is to come. Frustrated by his own failure to publish, Rory copies the old typescript verbatim and, encouraged by Dora, submits it as his own. But his subterfuge is discovered by the actual writer (Irons), who follows and confronts Jansen, forcing him to confess his plagiarism and leading to a somewhat surprising, if indeterminate resolution.
The film starts with Hammond reading from his novel about Jansen, watched adoringly by Columbia grad student Daniella (Olivia Wilde), whom Hammond effortlessly lures to his apartment afterwards. At that point, late in the film, certain problematic parallels emerge between Hammond and his literary creation, Jansen, just as they had between Jansen and The Old Man. The ending, equally problematic, makes explicit the theme of the difficult, perhaps finally unknowable, connection between life and fiction.
This plot summary indicates the movie’s complexity: not everyone will want to give it the necessary attention. Those who do may feel rewarded by its thoughtfulness and its capacity to overcome some of the standard cinematic clichés about writing, that most uncinematic of endeavors. My own favorite performance is that of Irons, as a writer who has accepted his own failure but remains bitter about what he gave up or lost in his quest to succeed. He becomes the movie’s central voice, embodying both the power and the cost of words. It’s a nuanced, layered piece of supporting acting.
“The Words” is rated “PG-13,” but I’m guessing that most teens won’t be drawn to it, in any case. Beautifully filmed by cinematographer Antonio Calvache, and featuring some meticulous production design by Michele Laliberte, it’s an old-fashioned movie, with no sex, violence, or special effects, which likely doomed it at the box office.