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The Words

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The Words

Bradley Cooper and Zoe Saldana in 'The Words'

CBS Films
In a realm of reboots and adaptation, being able to claim ownership is becoming increasingly difficult for writers and filmmakers. Which, in part, is what makes The Words so fascinating once you get into the origin, but quickly gives way to boring tropes. The film is a passion project from Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, who share directing and writing credits, which grew from Bradley Cooper’s own involvement with the project as the lead face. The Words was the closing feature for the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and, in a weird way, represents everything right and wrong with an invested first try at a feature film.
We start with acclaimed novelist Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) as he prepares to read from his latest novel, “The Words,” to a packed auditorium where a graduate student (Olivia Wilde) waits to corner him. But then we’re already into the possible story about a struggling novelist Rory (Cooper) and his fiancé Dora (Zoe Saldana) as they adjust to the artist’s life in New York--namely having a huge apartment but barely affording rent. During their honeymoon they stop at a quaint little antique store in France where Rory discovers an unpublished, typed manuscript from an unknown author that perfectly captures the voice our struggling Hemingway wished to own. In a desperate bid, he begins to retype the manuscript until he hands it off to a publisher where he works the days as a mailroom clerk. The book’s a success and shoots Rory into publishing stardom--except the original author, or “The Old Man” (Jeremy Irons) as he is now, returns to haunt his newfound and false success.

The creative trio of Klugman, Sternthal and Cooper do their best to push a changing narrative to an audience that may not be expecting it. What is marketed as a straight-forward psuedo-drama is instead constantly changing the narrative, jumping from Quaid, Cooper and to Ben Barnes who plays a much younger “The Old Man,” which is all the character gets named as even the manuscript has it blacked out. But it gets tiring as the central themes of copying and cribbing ideas is brought up so much, along with an unclear concept that we’re never really sure who the “fictional” character is in The Words. Is Clay Hammond a much older Rory,or is it vice versa and Hammond is the fictional attempt Rory creates to make amends? And why is Jeremy Irons left to waste away as he plays nothing more than a narrator to Ben Barnes (best known to international audiences from The Chronicles Of Narnia series) as he mopes around? That’s part of the overindulged drama’s mystery.

It’s not The Words’ fault that it has no idea what it wants to be--it’s an interesting concept that explores literature and content creation. It’s just awkward to think that previous films attempting this did so under the blanket of science fiction, like The Nines and Southland Tales , which gave audiences a comfort zone to accept. But here, where we’re expected to treat three separate stories--one of which could be a physical book--and even when there’s a hint at what “the words” are all about, it’s done with such a heavy hand that one almost expects Jeremy Irons to drop to his knees and curse us for not appreciating the heights of commercial cinema. If anything, The Words is a great concept humbled by how serious the talent behind us demand we take it, except “it” is about as culturally relevant as the latest adventure of James Patterson’s Alex Cross --which we’ll find out in a few weeks, also in theaters.
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