“Less is more” may be a cliché, but it’s one The Words should have heeded. Alas, co-writers and directors Brian Krugman and Lee Sternthal’s film suggests they believe quantity trumps quality. Lacking the skills to tell a single story well, they’ve attempted to compensate by telling three stories badly.
The film’s narrator is Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid), an author giving a public reading from the novel which gives the film its name. The main characters in Clay’s novel, meanwhile, are Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) and his wife Dora (Zoe Saldana), a New York couple basking in the glow of Rory’s acclaimed novel The Window Tears.
Except Rory, we learn, didn’t actually write the The Window Tears. He discovered a manuscript inside a battered satchel his wife bought him in Paris, and ultimately decided to pass it off as his own. Shortly after receiving a literary award, however, Rory’s confronted by an old man (Jeremy Irons, credited only as “The Old Man”), who reveals he is the novel’s true author.
A rather tedious if beautifully filmed flashback recounts the romance between the young old man (Ben Barnes), once an American soldier, and a waitress (Nora Arnezeder) he met in post-Second World War Paris. The couple married and had a daughter who died in infancy. Struck by inspiration after her death, the young man wrote the novel, apparently a fictionalized account of his love and loss. He believed it had great potential, but seemingly lost it forever when his wife left the briefcase containing it on a train, leaving him frustrated and embittered.
The Words’ first half or so is interesting, if not riveting. Rory’s dilemmas are relatable, both when he first reads the manuscript and realizes it surpasses anything he’ll ever write, and when he’s later forced to decide between his ethics and his career. Whatever his choice, the ominous music and portentous narration suggest, there will be grave consequences.
Having created this suspense, though, the film fails to deliver, drawing Rory and Dora’s story to an unclear and underwhelming conclusion. Back in the real world, meanwhile, events take a twist when Clay’s approached after the reading by Danielle (Olivia Wilde), an inquisitive English lit grad student with questions about the novel.
A conversation between the two back at Clay’s apartment raises the possibility that Rory is in fact based on the author himself, but Clay and Danielle, like all the other characters, aren’t developed enough to inspire much interest. Indeed, Irons is the only actor who makes any impression, a codger with an air of menace behind his apparent frailty.
Beyond its failures in plot and character development, however, what’s surprising about the film is its forgettable and sometimes downright clunky language (it’s called The Words, after all). The most memorable phrase from Clay’s book is his awkward description of Rory getting “The loudest sound of all: silence” in response to manuscripts he’s submitted. We learn almost nothing about the actual content of The Window Tears, but that The Old Man tells Rory he was once “happy like a pig in shit” casts some doubt on his rhetorical skills.
It’s possible this bad writing is meant to illustrate Clay’s lack of talent, but then why would a grad student such as Danielle be a fan of his? Alternatively, if we’re meant to believe The Window Tears truly is a great novel, why is there so little detail about it?
Whatever the case, Krugman and Sternthal inadvertently succeed in driving home the lesson Rory learns. It’s a lot easier to pretend to have created a masterpiece than it is to actually do so.