“The Words” seems like an obvious drama about dishonesty on the surface, but it’s unexpectedly and pleasantly intricate. This frame narrative tells a story, within a story, within a story. And while it doesn’t tie them all three together perfectly, the film by newcomers Lee Sternthal and Brian Klugman has some deep things to say about life, love, and the creative process.
The movie opens on Clay (Dennis Quaid), a famous author who is sharing excerpts from his bestseller ‘The Words.’ His voice-over transports you inside the novel, as the narrative quickly takes on a life of its own as the main focus of the film. Clay’s tale is about a struggling young writer in New York City named Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper). Rory has a gorgeous wife (Zoe Saldana) and a decent apartment; however he’s ashamed that his career as an author is floundering.
Rory finally achieves literary acclaim, but not by his own merits. After discovering a brilliant old manuscript hidden in an antique, Rory decides to publish it. The book becomes an astounding success, and establishes him to the American public as a groundbreaking creative mind. Rory must tackle guilt for what he’s done though, once he is confronted by The Old Man (Jeremy Irons) whose manuscript he stole.
Strangely, The Old Man isn’t searching for fortune or credit; he only wants Rory to understand his emotional reasons for writing the book. So as Rory listens, The Old Man recounts the passionate post-World War II romance that inspired his creation. His flashbacks take you another layer deeper, into the film’s third story.
“The Words” is definitely a movie for romantics because it celebrates young love, from Rory’s perspective and The Old Man’s. Although its extremely painful depiction of love-lost will make you think twice about taking your own relationships for granted. Love isn’t the only big concept in the film though. ‘The Words’ additionally explores learning to live with mistakes and the emotional impact of writing.
All three main male characters experience intense remorse for putting their work before their significant others. You suffer with them as they try to deal with their mistakes and move on with life. “The Words” also discusses writing as catharsis. By extension, the stealing and consumption of another person’s words involves taking on their emotional burden, something will resonate deeply with you if you’re an aspiring author. Sometimes “The Words” tries too hard to be clever however, with its statements about the written word as an art form.
Throughout the film, Sternthal and Klugman attempt to break from Rory and the Old Man to show you Clay’s encounter with a young fan (Olivia Wilde). Cooper and Irons’ characters own the movie though, and Clay’s portion is arguably the weakest. Quaid gives a fine performance, but his character is the least developed, and the filmmakers are annoyingly ambiguous about whether Rory’s fictional experiences are based on Clay’s real ones. “The Words” could be equally impactful without him.
The film’s biggest detriments are its slow pacing and that it gets very heavy during the dramatic portions because it works with such sad themes. If you’re an introspective person, you’ll appreciate what “The Words” has to say, even if you feel a bit downtrodden after watching.