Film Review – The Words
The ownership of artistic worth and the nature of truth itself are the weighty topics at the core of the new film The Words. Written and directed by frequent character actor Brian Klugman, this film gives serious emotional weight to the act of artistic creation itself. Whether what the artist creates is true or who owns that work once it is created is sometimes hard to quantify.
The story here is bookended by Dennis Quaid as a famously successful author giving a public reading from his latest novel. Before an adoring and attentive crowd, he sets the stage for the tale of frustrated fictional unknown author Rory Janson. Bradley Cooper has rarely been better than his role here as Rory. He spends most of his days banging away at a great novel that he knows he has in him, the whole time emotionally supported by his loving girlfriend, earnestly played by Zoe Saldana, and financially supported by his blue collar no-nonsense father (the ever reliable J.K. Simmons), Rory feels he has great writing in him. However, much like Salieri in Amadeus, he doesn’t seem to quite have the talent to match his artistic ambition. Like many folks, he slowly sets aside his larger dreams and settles into a quietly milquetoast married life. But while on their honeymoon in Europe, Rory secretly discovers an old manuscript of a long-forgotten unpublished book in an antique shop. It is a moving, dramatic tale that is much beyond his own capabilities. Surreptitiously, it gets published as Rory’s work; he willingly never bothers to correct anyone about his authorship, and subsequently he reaps a best-selling literary career based on a lie.
The Words is at its best when dealing with the emotions behind the literature here. Rory desperately wants to have the talent to create a story as good as the one he discovers. When he retypes it himself, he honestly just wants to feel the words flow through him, to see if he can glean some genuine inspiration. Later, when he’s going along with the lie, it’s not just the money and fame he gains that motivates him. Cooper plays the character as a genuinely anguished artist who longs to be better. He’s just afraid he never will be. Jeremy Irons makes a notable and lasting impression later in the film as a mysterious older man who may know Rory’s secret.
With the device of the real-life famous author, played charmingly by Dennis Quaid, The Words often deals with a story within a story within a story. As the evening of his reading rolls along, he reluctantly tells more of his tale to a beautiful young grad student played by Olivia Wilde. He coyly uses his new book to try to get in her pants. But she makes him confront the issue of how much of his book is true. Where does the character of Rory end and his own story begin? And that is an honest question that many an author has had to ask.
In this time of literary scandals like James Frey being outed on the Oprah show, Stephen Glass bending the truth while writing for The New York Times, Mike Daisey blurring the lines of fact or fiction on This American Life, and the countless troubles with plagiarism due to the age of the Internet, the subject of The Words couldn’t be more timely. Selling work that is not yours as an original idea is a lie. What motivates that lie can be complex, though. It’s not always just about the money (though that often helps). This film is interesting in that it doesn’t draw all of its conclusions for you. How much of the Quaid character’s life is in his books is open to interpretation. The mechanics of this story may at times be predictable. There is a plot point or two that you can see coming. But the acting and love of literature shown by the filmmakers wins you over.