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"The Words"

The Words: Sundance Film Review

3:59 PM PST 1/30/2012 by Todd McCarthy

The Bottom Line

A strikingly attractive cast and an inviting storyline are undermined by points of narrative disorder in this smoothly crafted literary melodrama.

Released:

September 7, 2012

Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Irons lead a familiar and slightly flawed melodrama already headed for distribution by CBS Films.

“I wish I had an idea for my second book,” young author Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) jokes to an admiring crowd upon accepting a major literary prize. The problem is, he never had an idea for his first one, having published the work of an anonymous author under his own name. Therein lies the central ethical dilemma of The Words a lushly appointed, high-minded melodrama with surface seductions that are offset by some elemental missteps. The ultra-attractive name cast and classy trappings will be enough to launch this Canadian-made production theatrically, but its muffled overall impact suggests just moderate box office returns for this CBS Films pickup, with perhaps better result awaiting down the line in ancillary markets.

One initial issue is that the premise of one author stealing another man's work was recently used by Woody Allen in You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, in which Josh Brolin's frustrated writer appropriates the manuscript of a friend not expected to live. There are other problems, including odd omissions in the interactions between Rory and Jeremy Irons' character, and the under-realized use of the literary groupie portrayed by Olivia Wilde.

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All the same, debuting writer-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal reveal undoubted talents for smoothly luring an audience into a story, nicely balancing a triple-tiered dramatic line and enabling their sexy actors to shine. Whatever its gaps and flaws, The Words is teasingly involving from a narrative point of view, and English grads with dreamy notions of Paris as the place to be a young, talented, starving artist will easily capitulate.

The only “real” characters here are distinguished author Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) and his admirers, most notably one of those very English grads (Wilde), who has packed in to hear Clay read from his new novel, The Words. The book's focus is Rory Jansen, an earnest young man whose stunning lady Dora (Zoe Saldana) adoringly supports his thus far unpublished literary efforts.

On the couple's Paris honeymoon, during which they pointedly stop to admire a plaque honoring Ernest Hemingway, Dora buys her new husband an old satchel. Back in New York, Rory discovers within it a yellowing, unsigned typed manuscript that upends his world. After typing it into is computer, he presents it to his agent, who responds as if he'd just read a lost Hemingway masterpiece. Once it's published, under Rory's name, the world reacts the same way, and Rory becomes the literary darling of the moment. If his conscience bothers him, the satisfactions of a life's dreams achieved outweigh any misgivings.

But a ratty old man (Irons) who one day plants himself next to Rory on a Central Park bench has a story to tell him. This next narrative level, recounted by the old-timer in the third person, recounts how a young American soldier (Ben Barnes), posted in Paris after D-Day, fell in love with a lovely French girl (Nora Arnezeder), had a child with her, experienced tragedy and, in a frenzied two weeks, wrote a book that got lost on a train. There's plenty more, but the old man's revelations force Rory to confront the moral and ethical ramifications of his theft; he's got to decide what to say to his wife, agent, publisher, public and, most of all, to himself.

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The entire young-lovers-in-Paris section may be a romantic cliché, but it's still lovingly done, as Barnes cuts a strong portrait of an aspiring artist, and the abrupt turn from youthful happiness to bitter despair is affectingly accomplished. Viewer sympathy naturally flows to this enterprising fellow tripped up by fate, but the story's impact is immeasurably boosted by Irons, whose narration of events that determined his life more than a half-century earlier is spellbinding and keeps one in the general vicinity of the edge of one's seat.

Further suspense, of a rather different nature, revolves around the question of whether Wilde's brazen fox will succeed in her self-appointed mission of adding Clay Hammond to the notches in her belt. Joining him at his place after he ends his public reading short of the book's conclusion, she demands to know the rest of the story between slugs of booze and, while she poses some interesting challenges to Clay's resolution of the plot and the choices the fictional Rory made, they could have gone further in ways that might have shaken up the author and made him reconsider aspects of his work.

For one thing, it might have fallen to her to point out that the device of the lost manuscript in a briefcase derives directly from the famous incident of Hemingway's wife Hadley having lost all his manuscripts when her lack of vigilance allowed the valise containing them to be stolen from a train in Paris. What's more, why does Rory never ask the old man's name?

As the ostensible central figure, Cooper, who is also aboard as an executive producer, has a callow, lightweight quality that may be appropriate to the morally fluid Rory but, in terms of screen wattage among the men, places him fourth behind the uniformly effective Irons, Quaid and Barnes. Beautiful all, Wilde, Saldana and Arnezeder play women viewed strictly in terms of their relationships with men—predatory, supportive and loving, respectively—which keeps them one-dimensional.

Craft contributions are as lush as a luxury sedan, very easy on the eyes and pleasant to be around.

Bottom line: Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)

Distributor: CBS Films

Production: Animus Films, Serena Films, Parlay Pictures, Benaroya Pictures

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Irons, Dennis Quaid, Olivia Wilde, Zoe Saldana, Ben Barnes, Nora Arnezeder, J.K. Simmons, Ron Rivkin, Zeljko Ivanek

Directors: Brian Klugman, Lee Sternthal

Screenwriters: Brian Klugman, Lee Sternthal

Producers: Michael Benaroya, Tatiana Kelly, Jim Young

Executive producers: Laura Rister., Cassian Elwes, Lisa Wilson, Bradley Cooper

Director of photography: Antonio Calvache

Production designer: Michele LaLiberte

Costume designer: Simonetta Mariano

Editor: Leslie Jones

Music: L Marcelo Zarvos

101 minutes