“Are all books as ponderous as the one central to the plot here?” you might think. “Forget all this reading nonsense; what’s on the new fall TV lineup?”
See, movie, you still don’t win.
Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), on his honeymoon in Paris with new wife Dora (Zoe Saldana), visits a site with a plaque memorializing Ernest Hemingway. He gazes reverently; his wife tries to pull him away. And that pretty much tells you what kind of would-be writer Rory is — you know, insufferable.
He’s also not terribly good at it. His manuscript is rejected by agents and, after his dad (J.K. Simmons) says that the gravy train has come to an end, Rory is forced to get a day job with all the other would-be writers at a publishing house. Luckily for him, however, he does indeed have one great story. Not in his head, but in a battered briefcase that he bought from a second-hand shop in Paris. While looking through the briefcase one day, he finds a manuscript and reads it. For reasons that sound fairly sketchy, he decides to type it out. His wife finds it, assumes it’s his and tells him how brilliant it is, how much better than his other stories. She urges him to take it to someone at his publishing house and, because he’s a weenie, he does so.
He receives massive amounts of acclaim — and the attention of an old man (Jeremy Irons) who shows up to tell Rory that the story sounds awfully familiar.
In the nesting dolls of this movie, this story of Rory includes a flashback to the story that inspired his blockbuster book. In that, an American soldier (Ben Barnes) falls for a waitress (Nora Arnezeder) in post-World War II Paris. The outer framing device is author Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) giving a reading of his new book, The Words, which is the story of Rory and his book. In this outer story, Clay discusses his book with a way-too-young-for-him groupie (Olivia Wilde).
Movies about writing, sigh — I mean, they can work. Midnight in Paris was pretty good, Shakespeare in Love worked pretty well, Julie & Julia was sort of about writing and it was fun. They can also be dull and self-important and kind of make you dislike literature — Exhibit A being this movie. It’s all so showy, so “watch me think about the meaning of this.” The result of having Quaid’s character essentially narrate the Bradley Cooper plotline is that nothing is simply hinted at, it’s all explained, hammered home that “Rory is distraught” or whatever with a kind of thudding obviousness. You get none of the nuance of a good book or the atmospherics of a good movie. The performances here range from entertainingly overwrought (Irons) to boringly overwrought (Cooper) to completely unnecessary (Wilde — she is the recipient of totally unnecessary exposition and is, I think, supposed to distract us by being hot).
Trailers for this movie gave away as much of the plot as I told you here, but the big surprise SPOILER is that there’s no surprise. There is very little by way of plot not shown in the trailer. I kept waiting for something that would pull together all the elements and give the movie, well, a point, but instead we just get talk — talk about writing, talk about the meaning of fiction. No talk, sadly, on what other better movie you could be watching. D+
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and smoking. Screenplay by and directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, The Words is an hour and 36 minutes long and distributed by CBS Films.