The Words, the directorial debut of Brian Klugman (the writer of Tron: Legacy) starts with a great deal of promise, a spate of good-to-great performances, and features an interesting story that critiques the nature of truth in literature. The film’s conclusion, however, tarnishes the journey and leaves the audience with an unsatisfying, dismissive ending that seems to mock us for our emotional investment in the characters and our desire to divine inspiration from a story.
Drawing inspiration from high-profile scandals where authors were accused of plagiarism and of autobiographies that were riddled with exaggerations and falsehoods, The Words questions the nature of literary reality. Dennis Quaid plays a writer who reads from his latest book, a seemingly autobiographical tale of a struggling writer (Bradley Cooper) who strikes it big after passing off a decades-old manuscript as his own. When the writer is confronted by the actual author—a bitter old man whose life was ruined when he lost his novel—he is forced to deal with the fallout.
The multilayered story invites the viewer to attempt to divine the connection between the author (Quaid) and the subject of his story (Cooper). But the film never delivers a satisfying—or even reasonable attempt—to investigate the nature of literature, leaving the audience wondering why they had invested so much effort into these characters, learning that they were nothing but lies.
Jeremy Irons owns every scene he is in, playing the bitter old man whose story was stolen. His despair is heart wrenchingly honest, giving gravitas to the act of plagiarism. While Irons is the standout, nobody turns in a bad performance in this film (with the possible exception of Olivia Wilde whose character lacks any sort of motivation beyond being a literary groupie. Her performance may be good but the character is very odd).
The failings of The Words fall directly onto the writer/director Brian Klugman who sets the audience up for reveals that never come, promising something more than the dismissive ending that we’re given. My mind raced to make connections, find reason in the story, and was promised something great. The dialogue teases deep meaning but ends in a way that doesn’t invite speculation but seems to imply that artists don’t care about anything but dollars and sales and not about art.
It’s rare that a single moment can ruin an entire film but that’s exactly what happened with The Words. The movie wants to be deep but doesn’t know how. What’s left is a simple, if clever, product that trips at the 5 yard line and fumbles out of the back of the endzone (it’s football season, what do you want?)
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