Films about writers and writing — at least when that’s not just an excuse to get the real plot going, as in Limitless are notoriously fraught. The process of writing itself is fantastically dull to watch, and it’s difficult to find much else worth saying about being a writer that doesn’t come off as trite. It’s a pleasant surprise, then, to find that The Words not only has something to say, but such a gorgeous way to say it. Like a great work of literature, it rewards patience, attention, and insight; it may well be the most literary film I’ve ever seen.
Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) is an aspiring writer who moves to New York City with his college girlfriend, Dora (Zoë Saldana), to make it as a writer. He spends three years on his novel with little to show for it but some praise for his talent and excuses for why it can’t be published. He takes a job as a mail clerk in a publishing house and marries Dora, settling into his life. They honeymoon in Paris, where she buys him an old briefcase in an antique shop down some lost side street. Shortly after their return, he finds a manuscript in the case, far beyond his own abilities. He retypes it, just to let the words flow through him somehow; Dora sees it on his computer and pushes him to submit it. Within two years Rory’s debut novel has won him fame, fortune, and prestigious awards, but Rory knows it isn’t his. The words didn’t come from him; where they did, he doesn’t know.
Someone does know: an old man (Jeremy Irons) who strikes up a conversation with Rory in the park one day. He tells a story of a young man (Ben Barnes) — an American in Paris, just after the second world war — and the French girl he falls in love with (Nora Arnezeder). He tells of the young man’s urge to write, and his career working for an expat newspaper. He tells of a child lost in infancy, of the anguish that led the young man to pour himself out through his typewriter, and of the despair when — in one of many allusions to Hemmingway — the manuscript is left in a briefcase on a train.
The Words plays out like a literary novel, as much about an experiment in form as it is about telling two mirrored stories. And for good reason: it is a literary novel, written by the acclaimed writer Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid), sections of which he reads to a packed auditorium containing — among others — a young graduate student of American literature, Daniella (Olivia Wilde), who idolizes him. This third, framing level is explored in less depth than the other two, and it could possibly be dispensed with. Indeed, having three layers to the film leads inevitably to almost-literal charges of being “too clever by half”. And yet it’s this story that gives meaning and purpose to the other two beyond simply retelling a hoary piece of Hemmingway trivia.
In the climactic monologue from The Big Kahuna, Danny DeVito tells Peter Facinelli that his face has no character because he does not regret anything. It’s not that he’s done nothing to regret, but his regret has yet to really sink in and become integrated into his life. Rory, by the same token, cannot write a truly great book because he has yet to truly understand his own regret.
The Words is directed by two first-timers: Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, who also collaborated on the screenplay. Interestingly, they also worked together on the story for Tron: Legacy, which also turned out to be contemplatively slow and beautifully rendered. Here they embrace classical framings and symmetries. They play with a camera that scans repeatedly left-to-right across the scene, “reading” it. They rhyme Rory and Dora visually with the young man and his wife, and play both contrapuntally off of Clay and Daniella. They bring out one of Irons’ best performances, make the most of Quaid’s talents, and sail Cooper through his most serious role yet, with only a couple of points where he fails to really nail the emotional extremes.
Does The Words really need all these stylistic flourishes to achieve its aims? Aren’t there points where Klugman and Sternthal are basically just showing off? Sure, but did baroque architecture really need to be so, well, baroque? This is a gorgeous work of art, for those willing to put in the effort to appreciate what it has to offer.
Worth It: absolutely
Bechdel Test: fail.