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Sundance Review: Good Performances & Narrative Tapestry Can’t Save Emotionally Distant ‘The Words’

Sundance Review: Good Performances & Narrative Tapestry Can't Save Emotionally Distant 'The Words'

A combination of shopworn literary clichés combined with an “Inception”-worthy daisy chain of White People Problems, “The Words” fails to surpass dramatically the bland lack of specificity in its title while still offering a solid roundup of performances from its talented ensemble cast. Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, who received story credit for “TRON: Legacy” (a film this writer liked a lot), wrote and directed this flashback-laden tale of a novelist coming to terms with his life and work by writing a book about a novelist coming to terms with his life and work.

Dennis Quaid (“Footloose”) plays Clay Hammond, a successful writer who attends an event to read passages from his new novel, The Words. He details the life of an aspiring young writer named Rory (Bradley Cooper) who struggles to get published, and who finally finds success with a story about an American soldier and his French wife trying to raise a family in Paris after WWII. The only problem is that Rory didn’t write that story; he discovered a manuscript in an old satchel, and although he realized it was better than anything he could ever do, his wife Dora’s (Zoe Saldana) unknowing approval of the piece prompts him to submit it to a publisher. But after winning a variety of literary awards and establishing a reputation as one of the publishing industry’s most promising new authors, an Old Man (Jeremy Irons) approaches him and reveals that he, in fact, was the writer of that story – and more than that, he lived it.

As Hammond recounts his story to audiences, and later, to a comely grad student (Olivia Wilde) attracted to him through his writing, Rory struggles to decide what to do next. As his professional life and his relationship with Dora begins to deteriorate, Rory is forced to make a choice between announcing the truth to the world, or keeping it secret and trying to create a life that lives up to the promise of his lies.

First of all, let’s just nail down the structure of the film: Clay wrote a book about Rory, whose rise to success is told in flashback, and then when the Old Man contacts Rory, the Old Man tells him a story in flashback about how he came to write the manuscript Rory passed off as his own. While Klugman and Bernthal deserve real credit for never confusing the audience in terms of time or place, and in fact fit most of the components of this chronological Jacob’s Ladder together seamlessly, what’s less clear is the throughline of authoritative voices that are supposed to be telling stories, and the voices that are telling stories about stories. And particularly given the self-reflexivity on display in each layer of storytelling – the thematic reverberations of each man’s transgression, so to speak – it’s tough to draw a line between purported “actual” history and the literary embellishments of novelists attempting to create it within their works.

Part of the problem is that if Hammond is not just the author of a semi-autobiographical story, but the literal creator of the other characters in the film, he’s a pretty crummy and unoriginal writer. Notwithstanding the multiracial element of Rory and Dora’s relationship – which is thankfully never acknowledged directly – he’s a scruffy wannabe novelist whose struggles are completely conventional, and she’s an idealized cipher of a companion, a selflessly supportive wife and lover with no identity outside of her interactions with him. (Even their names feel like something a writer, not a parent, would come up with, especially when they’re paired together.) And in the Old Man’s WWII flashback, he’s a fresh-faced soldier starting to discover a larger world than his one-horse hometown, and he falls in love with a pretty, blonde French girl who works in a corner café, and always wears ruby-red lipstick and irresistibly cute sundresses. But the personal regret and moral indecision that Rory and the Old Man confront (both individually and together) plays out exactly like it would in, yes, the novel of a seasoned writer, and consequently its resolution feels artificial and uninvolving.

That said, the WWII story is the most affecting, because it feels like it alone is actually about real people, those anachronistic physical details aside, who are dealing with problems that aren’t limited to whether or not they should feel guilty about prioritizing their work over their loved ones (even if that certainly exacerbates things). Moreover, as the Old Man, Jeremy Irons manages to find a lot of beautiful notes in his character’s wistful recollection of how his manuscript was written, even when he’s psychoanalyzing himself in the third person (“maybe he was just…” etc.), and proves that he can still command the screen, even behind craggy old-age makeup.

Meanwhile, Cooper successfully communicates the idea of a guy who’s not as talented as he wishes, and is all too aware of that fact, but his second- and third-act sniveling about whether or not he should tell the world that he’s a phony gets tiresome really fast. (It’s one of the movie’s most satisfying moments when Saldana turns to him and says, “do you think you’re the only person who made a mistake before?”) Saldana, on the other hand, is such an automatic heartbreaker – soulful and perceptive as an actress, and the sort of collaborator who one can only imagine makes everyone else work harder to keep up – that she almost single-handedly pulls off the sincerity of their mutual passion (though I have no doubt Cooper’s character would be grateful to call her his wife), and lends substance that makes his moral quandary mean something, in more than purely self-indulgent terms.

But the film makes a disappointing, if inevitable decision at the end to return to the “present day” story between Hammond and Olivia Wilde’s character, who have moved from his book reading to his palatial, empty apartment, and are in the initial throes of a romantic tryst no one really wants to see. Despite Wilde’s febrile intelligence and sexuality to match, her character’s prolonged interest in Hammond makes her decreasingly appealing, especially since she bears the responsibility of connecting all of the dots from one story to the next, and figuring out what Hammond is really saying, not just in his work, but about himself. But the problem is that we never care about Hammond, and have no reason to; he’s not a tortured artist, or according to his prose, a particularly inventive writer, but a cushy creator of page-turners who in the final seconds of the film we are supposed to realize is suppressing a great wealth of pain and regret that he desperately wants someone to unlock.

Ultimately, however, the film’s various levels of storytelling don’t add up to emotional depth, and the characters’ problems are mostly too superficial – or even enviable – to be sympathetic. Even with a litany of great performances, many of which elevate characters that definitely need but are undeserving of the actors’ remarkable efforts, Klugman and Bernthal create a narrative tapestry without successfully binding it to an emotional one. All of which is why overall, “The Words” is just that – a verbal and physical expression of sentiment – when what it desperately needs is “the feelings” to go with them. [C]

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