Empty Words: Unimaginative plot wastes talented cast on dull, plodding story
“The Words” is the story of a story within a story within yet another story. Problem is, none of the stories are particularly interesting.
This wishy-washy literary thriller is masquerading as a “book-ception” of sorts, with incessant narration and a heavy-handed score just as cliched as its plot. The actors move capably enough through the film, but their performances are lost in a muddled narrative, like charming characters stuck in a lifeless novel.
Needlessly complex storytelling buries the few enjoyable scenes deep in the film’s runtime. Bradley Cooper plays his typical suave role as a young novelist, but his only truly absorbing acting is when he shares the screen with legendary star Jeremy Irons — the old man whose book he uncovered and passed off as his own.
When “The Words” finally peels back all the layers of its stale script, it’s far too late to save this mundane fiction.
The film opens with famous writer Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) reading his upcoming novel out loud to an audience. It chronicles struggling New York City writer Rory Jansen (Cooper), whose new book isn’t quite good enough for publishers; he’s working a dead-end job just to get by.
While honeymooning in Paris with his stunning wife, Dora (Zoe Saldana), he comes across a tattered old briefcase in an antiques shop. It sounds cliche, but wait, there’s more: Concealed inside is an untitled manuscript. Whoa. Now things are really heating up.
After some internal debate, Jansen plagiarizes the book literally word for word. The instant bestseller, “The Window Tears,” showers him with the acclaim and literary fandom he’s always dreamed of. Jansen enjoys the fruits of his lie until the real author (Irons) shows up, revealing the true story behind his stolen success.
The biggest problem with “The Words” is the words themselves. The script jumps back and forth between storylines, ruining what little dramatic momentum the plot drums up. Co-writers and directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal write themselves into corners, saved by one lucky coincidence after another — the original manuscript is tragically left on a train, Jansen happens to come across it at the perfect time and he effortlessly tracks down the mysterious unnamed author.
Irons’ particular storyline is the one bright spot in an otherwise forgettable cinematic experience. He limps onscreen with a cane and scraggly gray beard, casually approaching Jansen as a fan. Irons’ calming, raspy speech turns slowly colder as he describes the personal manuscript he lost long ago and “the piss-ant kid who found it.”
Irons narrates the old man’s memories with passionate nostalgia and pangs of regret. The young American veteran (Ben Barnes) falls for a beautiful French girl (Nora Arnezeder) in post-World War II Paris, living in bliss until they’re inevitably torn apart by tragedy. These few romantic flashbacks are the only bearable ones.
The collective narration is bothersome at best, with Quaid, Cooper and Irons all taking turns. The writing also has an air of conceit. Characters continually make corny, grandiose statements during hokey narrations.
As if to justify the premise of stealing a book verbatim, Hammond narrates as Jansen re-types the text: “He wanted to feel the words pass through his fingers, through his mind, if only for a moment.” It sounds like something written by Stephenie Meyer.
The atmosphere also seems artificial, chock-full of flashbacks to 1940s Paris and replayed stock footage of New York City, as if to fake an authentic feel. A heavy orchestral score adds to the painful melodrama, with swells of string and woodwind instruments signaling when a scene is supposed to be especially thrilling.
When the storylines finally do come together — sort of — there’s no real payoff. Instead of illuminating the depths of career ambitions and desperation, it’s just the superficial tale of a guy who steals a book, feels bad and gets away with it.
This film pretends like it has something to say, some grand life lesson to impart. But in the end, it’s just words.
Contact Rob: firstname.lastname@example.org
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