Friday, September 7, 2012

The Words

Review by Pamela Zoslov

Just before the closing credits for THE WORDS began to scroll, a loud murmur arose from the screening audience. Clearly, this is a movie that requires some discussion afterward.

The film, written and directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, is constructed as a story-within-a-story-wthin-a-story. It's about a purloined manuscript and a writer who becomes famous by publishing another man's work. The story's narrator is an author, Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid), who has written a book about the case.

Aspiring author Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), has been unable to get any publisher interested in his well-written literary novel. His father (J.K. Simmons, who seems to be in every movie lately) insists that he get a “real” job, so he accepts a job as a mail clerk at a publishing house. He marries his beautiful, devoted girlfriend Dora (Zoe Saldana), and they honeymoon in Paris. While browsing in a Paris antiques shop, Rory buys an old, worn leather briefcase, which he later discovers holds an old manuscript for a collection of romantic stories set in postwar Paris. Rory, desperate to make a name for himself, copies the manuscript, word for word, and submits it to his employer (Zeljko Ivanek), who is thrilled to publish it. (The overheated writing on the pages shown onscreen looks pretty awful, but whatever – we willingly suspend disbelief.)

The book, bearing the awkward title The Window Tears, is a meteoric success, and Rory becomes famous, collecting literary awards that he accepts with understandable humility. His Faustian bargain, of course, requires that the Devil come to collect (possible spoiler ahead), and one day he is approached by the true author of the manuscript (played by a heavily aged Jeremy Irons). The old man tells the young imposter his story, a Parisian-garret melodrama worthy of Puccini. The story is told in a series of attractive period flashbacks. When he was a young American soldier stationed in Paris, the man fell in love with Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises and with a pretty Parisian waitress, whom he married. Tragedy befell the couple, and in his pain, he feverishly banged out the manuscript, which he later mislaid. Rory, despite his bad deed, remains a rather sympathetic character, due in no small part to Cooper's earnest blue-eyed handsomeness. After meeting the book's true author, he desperately wants to make amends.

The story of the stolen manuscript is a familiar one; it was treated in a light, comedic manner by Woody Allen in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and in a German film called Lila, Lila. The moral dimensions of stealing another person's work are clear, and expectations are created that the thief will suffer for his act. But the screenwriters forgo the expected resolution and instead dovetail into a kind of parlor trick, in which fact cannot be distinguished from fiction. Is the dissipated Clay Hammond, who is questioned by a pretty fan (Olivia Wilde) he has lured to his expensive apartment, telling a true story or a fictional one? Is he the real Rory Jansen? Which, if any of the layers of this Russian nesting doll of a movie, is real? Hence the wave of murmuring at the movie's close.

Though it relies on hackneyed ideas – among them, that women are useful chiefly as pretty accessories to their writer-men -- the film at least dares to do something different and to thwart audience expectations. And that is not entirely a bad thing. 2 3/4 out of 4 stars.


  1. Two and three-quarter stars? I didn't know we were into infinitely divisible number ratings on this blog. This changes everything...

    1. The more gradations, the better, in my opinion. Two and a half looks like a pretty low rating, even if it's on a scale of 4.


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