By KIRBY MCCORD
Have you ever noticed that movies about authors of astronomically well-written cutting edge books are in themselves not particularly well written? For instance, it is apparent that the writers of the 2007 KeiraKnightley vehicle “Atonement” didn’t really know what that word meant. The 2012 Bradley Cooper vehicle “The Words” suffers from a similar ailment: although populated with grandiose imagery, the actual words used in the picture are rather mundane. I suppose that’s the irony the producers wished to convey: that mere words are incapable of capturing the human heart.
In an attempt at labyrinthine story-telling, the movie opens with celebrated author Clay reading excerpts from his new novel to a rapt audience. The story he reads tells of Rory, a struggling young writer who finds a fifty year old novel manuscript that reveals to him his own inadequacies as a writer. He publishes the novel as his own and it is an instant best seller. Then an Old Man accuses him of stealing his novel and proceeds to tell the history of the writing of that novel. Overcome with a stricken conscience, Rory offers to remove his nameand surrender all proceeds to the Old Man who rejects that gesture. An enthusiastic listener to Clay’s story, Daniella, attempts to get Clay to reveal how things are finally resolved, but Clay instead asks her to finish the story.
Sadly, the script for “The Words” is one of its weaknesses. The intricate weaving of three separate tales is not seamless, and in fact, the words we hear Clay read are, to be honest, boring, and contain all the passive voice errors our Freshman English teachers taught us to avoid. Interestingly, the words of Rory’s/the Old Man’s novel are never heard or seen, merely their impact on the reader; in fact, we are not sure if the story the Old Man tells Rory is the actual plotline of the novel or not—it seems the actual words are not relevant. The audience hears no great dialogue.
Ironicallyin a picture “about” the power of words, the outstanding feature of the film is the cinematography. Directors Brian Klugman (“Cloverfield”) and Lee Sternthal while fairly young and inexperienced, are wise enough to let Cinematographer Antonio Calvache(“In the Bedroom”) evoke through lighting and texture three incredibly intimate worlds. The scenes of Clay and Daniella are sterile, cold, and smooth. Those of Rory and his wife Dora and the stalking Old Man are claustrophobic in intensity, with lush foliage, brooding shadows and powerful colors all surrounding and overwhelming Rory with passion. The scenes the Old Man tells of post-World War II France have a patina of nostalgia about them, slightly faded, faintly sepia-toned with the innocence of remembrance.
Because dialogue is so bland, the emotions must be written on the faces of the actors. Dennis Quaid (“Footloose”) as Clay is craggy and cynical; Olivia Wilde (“The Change-Up”) plays Daniella as a college co-ed on the make, supremely confident of her good looks andsure of her intellectual superiority. Jeremy Irons (“Kingdom of Heaven”) portrays the wizened Old Man, his trademark scratchy voicesadly emotionless most of the time. Bradley Cooper (“The Hangover”) has the most screen time as Rory, registering appropriate degrees of angst and regret. Zoe Saldana (“Star Trek”) is Rory’s wife Dora, a woman who hopes to be his muse but is unable to overcome her disappointment in his failures.
“The Words” is ultimately a disappointing film simply because it is so poorly written, with sketchy dialogue and only mildly interesting characters. The premise is good, but the film fails to deliver on a number of levels, other than to leave the audience with a lingering sense of sadness. Still, it is worth watching simply for the images Antonio Calvache etches on the screen, vibrant with texture and nuance.