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"THE WORDS"
(2012) (Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A struggling writer finds a brilliant manuscript, passes it off as his own, and achieves literary fame and fortune ... and then the original author comes forward.
PLOT:
Rory Jansen (BRADLEY COOPER) is a struggling writer looking for his first big break, but his manuscripts keep getting rejected. He wants to make his fiancée, Dora (ZOE SALDANA), proud of him and stop borrowing money from his father (J.K. SIMMONS) to make ends meet each month. On a brief honeymoon to Paris, he and his new bride happen into an antique shop and buy an old satchel. In it, Rory finds a brilliant, unpublished manuscript from decades earlier and decides to transcribe and pretend it is his own original work of fiction.

The book becomes an unqualified success, earning Rory fame, fortune, and literary respect. But one day, an elderly gentleman known simply as The Old Man (JEREMY IRONS) sits down next to him on a Central Park bench and tells him the story of himself as The Young Man (BEN BARNES), a soldier in France who falls in love with a beautiful Parisian girl named Celia (NORAH ARNEZEDER) near the end of World War II. Their story ends tragically, but not before The Young Man is able to feverishly write it down on paper and then lose the entire unpublished novel. Rory realizes that The Old Man is the author whose story he has told.

At the same time, a third storyline runs throughout the film - that of another author named Clay Hammond (DENNIS QUAID) who has written a best-seller telling of Rory's fall from grace and the disintegration of his marriage. At a book party, he meets graduate student Daniella (OLIVIA WILDE), who seeks to draw out of Clay more details about the tale of Rory and the Old Man and find out the real truth.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
The new movie "The Words" is one of those flicks that leaves you angry when it ends, and it makes you even angrier on the drive home as you noodle it through with your spouse, friend, loved one, or inner voice. Football season starts this week, dear readers, but here's the first big fumble. I'm tapping into my inner Keith Jackson here rather than my inner Ebert. Remember Jackson's old Saturday ABC college football broadcasts? He was known for such calls as "The quarterback rolls out the right side ... and hit and cracked and ... FUMBLE!!!!!" Well, this movie came rolling out of the projector ... sprints to its midpoint, heaps on its plot twists and ... FUMBLE!!!!"

To adequately discuss what is wrong with "The Words" and how it goes off the rails would be to reveal a few too many spoilers. So, I'll try and be respectful of the film and those of you who will still want to see it after I get done eviscerating it. Bradley Cooper stars as Rory, a struggling writer whose manuscripts keep getting rejected by publisher after publisher for being "too subtle, too artistic." That ain't gonna be my criticism of the movie, by the way.

At any rate, Rory is desperate to prove himself in the inexplicably loving eyes of his new wife, Dora (Zoe Saldana). He's also tired of borrowing money from his father (J.K. Simmons) to make ends meet. In Paris, he happens upon an old satchel in an antique store. Inside is a brilliant and unpublished manuscript written decades earlier about a young World War II soldier who falls in love with a French woman only to lose her when their child dies. He passes it off as his own and becomes the next great literary sensation, achieving fame and fortune.

So, of course, the original author comes calling in the form of a character listed in the credits simply as The Old Man (Jeremy Irons). The coughing codger sits down next to Rory on a Central Park bench and tells him he knows he's a fraud and proves it by relating the real story behind the story. At this point, "The Words" has been a fairly absorbing, well-paced, well-written drama cutting between three time periods. The third, by the way, is a few years in the future with best-selling novelist Clay Hammond receiving accolades at a publisher's party for his best-selling book on Rory's elaborate hoax.

Then ... yup. FUMBLE!!!

After revealing himself to Rory, The Old Man walks away and demands NOTHING FROM HIM! Seriously! He doesn't blackmail Rory. He doesn't demand royalties or a share of his movie deal. He doesn't threaten to tell Rory's wife or his agent or his publisher. He doesn't even walk away taunting him that "he'll never know when I'll steal YOUR life!" He just basically tells him his life story and says in so many words, "I just wanted you to know that."

The movie then relies on the limited acting skills of Bradley Cooper to portray Rory as a man so suddenly racked with guilt and overruled by his conscience that he tells his wife and his agent about the lie he has perpetrated and threatens to tell the world. There is no character arc here for the all-important Rory character. Played blandly by Cooper and written blandly by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, the audience isn't allowed to feel much for him - good or bad. You don't really root for him to keep his secret. You don't really despise him enough to revel in his being found out. And when The Old Man demands nothing of him, the film pretty much dead-ends. Rory has already proven himself to have not much of a conscience. Why should he give up his fame, fortune, marriage, and respect at that point if there is no threat of public disgrace? It makes no sense. I just never felt what the movie was telling me I should feel.

"The Words" then fumbles again the more we come to learn of Quaid/Clay Hammond's part in the story's ultimate outcome. His scenes are almost all exclusively with a hot, young literary groupie named Daniella (Olivia Wilde). For much of the movie's running time, their scenes play out like an extended "booty call" with Clay maneuvering the attractive and adoring graduate student back to his penthouse with wine and flirtation. And then comes one of the clumsiest big reveals I can recall.

I know exactly what all concerned were going for here. I am not confused about the interlocking storylines as some in my preview audience were afterwards. But the effort here is just botched. My best guess is the filmmakers fell in love with the puzzle-box nature of their narrative and, in doing so, short-changed the drama. They failed to embrace the emotions of their piece. There's too much narration. The whole time, characters are telling you this story but not propelling this story. The running time here is 97 minutes. Why so short? I say about 10 to 15 more minutes spread throughout would have helped greatly.

"The Words" is certainly well dressed and beautifully photographed. It also has one of those relentlessly somber and self-important musical scores (by Marcelo Zarvos) that if given lyrics would feature the repeated chorus, "I Am an Important Movie. I Am an Important Movie." That lyric would be in C-minor, by the way, which is not too far off from my film critic's grade of C-minus -- or rather 3 out of 10. (T. Durgin)




Reviewed September 5, 2012 / Posted September 7, 2012


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