The tortured artist, plying his craft, is a cliché in our culture. In reality, artists struggle with their work no less than athletes struggle with their game, or businessmen struggle with the bottom line, or parents struggle with raising kids. Yet somehow, the creation of art is viewed as a uniquely mystical process, unfathomable to outsiders, and sometimes even to other artists. The Words plays heavily into this notion, and might have risen above the cliché thanks to some great performances, but ironically, it’s undone by poor writing.
The film tells three stories, each layered within the other. Author Clay (Dennis Quaid) is giving a reading from his new novel, while mysterious grad student Daniella (Olivia Wilde) watches him from the audience. Clay’s book is about Rory (Bradley Cooper), a writer who can’t get his work taken seriously, and who is increasingly dissatisfied with life because of it. Rory then discovers an old manuscript inside an antique briefcase, a novel so breathtaking and superior to his own work that he can’t get it out of his mind. Events soon lead him to take credit for the story, and it’s of course published to smash acclaim. Then the real author (Jeremy Irons) comes calling, and tells Rory the third story, of his past in post-war Paris, love gained and lost, and how all of it ended up on those stained, typewritten pages.
Writers and artists are often portrayed as clueless and impatient conduits for near-divine inspiration, and the characters of The Words are no exception. Irons’ Old Man channels a tragic loss into a brilliant novel, his talent appearing from nowhere and disappearing just as quickly. Rory rails against an unfolding of fate that hasn’t worked out as he planned, and can’t understand why the Old Man’s work is so much better than his own. Even the cool, confident Clay has difficulty explaining the point of his story. Whether or not you buy into the notion of art as an unknowable force, bestowed on the fortunate (and admittedly I do not), it still makes for a potentially engrossing subject for a film.
Unfortunately, this film isn’t it. The script by co-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal is bland and predictable, often allowing the audience to skip ahead, and their decision to nest these stories inside each other Inception-style grinds the pacing to a halt. Rather than get carried off by new threads, we’re constantly waiting to get back to the previous ones on hold. The movie does wake up and become quite exciting in the final 20 minutes, as everything spirals toward a conclusion, but then the ending is rushed and seems needlessly cryptic.
It’s too bad, because the talent on display here is excellent. Cooper is at his best playing a man tortured by events he can’t control, and haunted by things he thinks he should be able to. Quaid and Wilde generate some real heat, and Irons holds our attention even when sitting on a park bench narrating. They’re all backed up by a fine supporting cast, including Zoë Saldana as Rory’s wife, along with a number of well-known character actors who each contribute a lot despite little screen time.
Ultimately, though, The Words doesn’t quite make the grade. But maybe it isn’t anyone’s fault. Maybe it’s just the nature of the art.
Tags: movie review