Is there anything worse than a nested Russian-doll narrative in which each successive layer is less interesting than the last? By their nature, stories-within-stories interrupt the audience’s flow, forcing us to stop and reassess our engagement with each new set of characters, problems, and ideas. When none of those characters, problems, or ideas provide much to care about, the intricate puzzle-box structure connecting them starts to feel less like a game than a trap. The tepid literary melodrama The Words (CBS Films), co-written and co-directed by first-time filmmakers Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, unfolds like the slow-motion dismantling of the world’s most boring matryoshka.
The story’s outermost layer concerns a successful and critically celebrated middle-aged novelist, Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid), who’s giving a reading from his latest book to a large and admiring audience. Later on, we’ll discover that Clay is being semi-stalked by a gorgeous grad student (Olivia Wilde) who’s obsessed with his work. But for the movie’s opening scenes, Jay exists mostly to provide a voice-over—a florid, highly detailed voice-over that flouts the creative-writing axiom about showing rather than telling by doing both at the same time. The story Jay over-narrates for us is the plot of the book he’s promoting, The Words. In it, a considerably younger novelist, Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) is accepting an award for his work, a debut novel with the unpromising title The Window Tears.
The Window Tears, which in turn soon becomes the subject of its own nostalgically lit film-within-a-film-within-a-film, follows the travails of an unnamed young American soldier (Ben Barnes) who falls in love with a French barmaid (Nora Arnezeder) in the aftermath of the second World War. The whole of The Words pivots on the audience’s acceptance of the proposition that The Window Tears is a work of singular genius, though all I could make out from a few shots of the manuscript in progress was the phrase “Claudette’s honey-speckled eyes” and something about the shedding of a single, blood-stained tear. (This is an ongoing problem in films about fictional artists: At some point or other the audience gets a glimpse of whatever masterpiece the hero’s been laboring over, and the facsimile of “great art” on display tends to be a letdown—if powerful work were that easy to fake, we wouldn’t have so many bad movies.)
Rory’s whole life is turned around by the success of The Window Tears: He wins a major literary prize, enabling him to quit his low-level publishing job. The manuscript of another novel he’s been peddling unsuccessfully for years is suddenly in high demand, and he’s no longer so broke he needs to beg his father (J.K. Simmons) for periodic cash infusions. But (mild spoiler alert ahead, though the twist in question comes early on) Rory is hiding a guilty secret: Not one honey-speckled word of The Window Tears is his own. He found the whole manuscript in an antique attaché case in Paris while on his honeymoon with his adoring bride (Zoe Saldana). After reading it in a single impassioned sitting and obsessing about its perfection for days on end, he types the book into his laptop word for word and convinces himself, in some fevered haze of writerly envy and self-justification, to pass it off as his own.
The idea of a movie about a writer who hits the big time with a plagiarized book, and must forever after be looking over his shoulder, has promise—after all, who among us doesn’t identify at least in part with the fear of being uncovered as a secret lifelong fraud? And when an age-makeup-laden Jeremy Irons shows up as a crabbed old man who claims to be The Window Tears’ true author, The Words does seem like it might go someplace interesting for a brief, tense scene or two. Imagine the psychological warfare, the passive-aggressive competitiveness, the blackmail threats that such an encounter might occasion! But instead of taking advantage of the rich contrasts of the Irons/Cooper dyad—youth vs. age, integrity vs. fraudulence, Oscar for best actor vs. People’s sexiest man alive award—the filmmakers choose to plonk Irons on a park bench and put him to work narrating yet another nested flashback, as we revisit the story of the work’s composition 50 years before.
It’s as if the only mode of human communication The Words recognizes as meaningful is when a writer, standing immobile at a podium or sitting on a park bench, formally recites a story that’s simultaneously recreated in images as literal as Christmas-pageant tableau. This is especially true of the nearly dialogue-free Paris flashbacks, which are essentially simultaneous re-enactments of the events being described in voice-over. For a film that purports to be about the love of literature and the call of the writerly life, The Words is remarkably uninterested in playing with either language or ideas. It’s solemn and dull to a degree that can’t help but breed fantasies of Rocky Horror-style heckling (bring your own crumpled pages of bad prose to lob at the screen during the multiple tormented-writer-at-work montages!). The closing scene between Quaid and Wilde (remember that frame story? Me neither) seems to be aiming for a tone of postmodern ambiguity about how these three competing stories fit together to form one truth, but instead the resolution feels deliberately muddled and vague. “At some point you have to choose between life and fiction,” another character earnestly warns Cooper’s callow plagiarist at a turning point in the story. If the fiction under consideration is the movie The Words, go ahead and choose life.
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