Sometimes we have to learn the hard way that when it comes to the annual Sundance Film Festival, nothing gold can stay. And just because a film gets picked up for distribution does not necessarily mean it’s the best of the best. The word “pretentious” gets thrown around a lot during most film festivals, but sometimes a film is even too dumb for that. When it comes to this weekend’s The Words however, “bone-headed” and “ham-fisted” would be my own words to describe it.
I’d heard both good and bad about writer/directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal’s film after it played at this year’s 2012 Sundance. And seeing how that was eight months and six trimmed minutes later, I was more than willing to let the film play to its own merits. It’s just too bad it doesn’t have any. While aspiring to be something along the lines of Neil LaBute’s Possession, the film buries itself in literary clichés while the screenplay only helps shine an even brighter light at how bad it really is.
The Words refers to the novel written by author Clay Hammond. One night at a reading, a mysterious guest arrives in the form of Danielle (Olivia Wilde). She knows way too much about him we learn and I started praying the film would turn into Misery 2. Danielle has come to hear him read two excerpts from the titular novel and seems to have ulterior motives. The reality of the film is then buried under the fictional accounts of Hammond’s novel. Within The Words, Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) is living the good life with his girlfriend Dora (Zoe Saldana).
Rory has taken time off from the working class to focus on his true passion of becoming a bestselling novelist. This is all to the chagrin of his father (J.K. Simmons) who seems to be keeping the couple afloat while Rory refuses to accept his own shortcomings on the road to being a man. Rory finally takes a job in the mailroom at a prestigious publishing house and has finally finished his first novel. He hands it over to Timothy Epstein (Ron Rifkin, Arvin Sloane to Cooper’s Will Tippin — yes, we have an Alias reunion). Epstein gives Rory the bad news that his novel is too subtle and nuanced to be embraced by the public in the wake of a debut writer.
While vacationing in Paris, Rory and Dora find an old satchel and Dora buys it for Rory to use for work. Eventually, Rory discovers an old manuscript that turns out to be the best novel he’ll never write. Until he passes it along to Joseph Cutler (Zeljko Ivanek) who proclaims it as one of the best novels ever written, and wants to personally thank Dora for talking him into letting him represent him in the literary world. Rory is hailed as a genius and has just won an esteemed award for his novel when The Old Man (Jeremy Irons) follows Rory into the park and offers up a story only Rory wouldn’t find too good to be true.
And alas, the film buries its asinine plot even further into a second heaping of fictional storyline. Meanwhile, the surface story of Hammond and Danielle gets laid by the wayside even though it’s painfully obvious to what Klugman and Sternthal think is the greatest story ever told. Chockfull of unintentional laughs and mind-numbing plot twists you can see coming from a mile away, not even Jeremy Irons can save this sinking ship. I’ve heard from at least one colleague that Irons should be recognized come Oscar season, but all he does is show up to gnash around the scenery in a case of déjà vu of Scar taking down Mufasa all over again.
I couldn’t help but find it hilarious that Rory writes a novel deemed so good that an agent refuses to publish it only to find himself hailed to such unquestioned acclaimed when he finally manages to get a different manuscript published that’s supposedly even better. Another chuckle comes in the form of a foreshadowing thumbprint and how Hammond literally wrote the book on the surface story but can’t see what’s coming to save his life.
If only the filmmakers had squeezed in at least one attempt at intentional humor and had Danielle tell Hammond, “I’m your number one fan.” During the film, The Old Man tells Rory that he wrote the book he stole from him in two weeks which is about how long the film feels. The saddest part of the whole thing is that the structure of the film is what makes you not care one iota about anything outside of it. It all just goes to show that no matter how many words the filmmakers string along, The Words never comes close to living up to any of them.
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