THE WORDS (Three Stars)
U.S.: Directed & written by Brian Klugman & Lee Sternthal, 2012 (Sony)
I have a confession to make. I didn’t write this review.
As a youngster, I adored books and the words that made them up, loved the very feel of the pages on my fingers. Some of that old passion seems to course through the new movie, The Words: a literature-intoxicated film about writing and writers, and how people love and betray them both.
There’s a very good idea here: the notion that, in literature as elsewhere, fame and achievement aren’t necessarily wed together, but that art and life should always or mostly always be. Though the filmmakers — writer-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal — don’t entirely realize that theme, they have some fun with it. This good looking, likable movie about the literary life is full of good-looking likable (but not necessarily literary-looking) actors like Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana, Dennis Quaid, Olivia Wilde and Ben Barnes. It‘s well designed (by Michele Laliberte) and beautifully photographed (by Antonio Calvache), and it shows an engaging feel for books and authors, brushed with a darker cynicism about the ways books are written and how reputations are made. Those were qualities I was happy to see in this age when books are beginning to disappear and our “writers” are often celebrity phonies employing ghost writers.
In the movie, a very successful, almost offensively arrogant writer named Clay Hammond (played by Dennis Quaid, in full smirk) reads to a small, select audience, passages from his latest novel, also called “The Words,” while a pretty Columbia journalism student, Daniela (Olivia Wilde) eyes him from the crowd. Hammond’s “Words“ is about a young good-looking writer named Rory Jansen (Cooper), who wants to be a serious novelist and is scraping by , with his attractive wife Dora (Zoe Saldana), in a nice-looking New York apartment, mostly it seems on his wife’s salary and handouts from his businessman father (J. K. Simmons) — and later from his salary as a mailboy in a publishing house.
Rory writes several novels in the early part of Clay’s story, and one of them even wins some sincere but apologetic plaudits from an editor , who nevertheless, like everybody else, declines to publish them. We get a sense of what these books are like from what we see that Rory is like: He’s ambitious, pretentious, self-absorbed, unimaginative, somewhat humorless.
Rory and Dora go to Paris. (His life is not too hard, you see.) They roam. Rory stares at the plaque outside Hemingway’s famous old apartment. Later, in a shop, Dora buys him an old leather briefcase, and in it he finds an old yellowing manuscript that somebody obviously forgot, and that remained unnoticed all these decades — and that has no author’s byline or address. Intrigued, he reads it. It has no title. Not even “The Words.” The mysterious book tells the story of a young WWI veteran and would-be writer (Ben Barnes), nameless in the manuscript, and of his marriage to a French waitress Celia (Nora Arnezeder), who bears him a child who dies. The mood of these scenes suggests something momentous, like Hemingway reading Scott’s Gatsby. (Or perhaps more aptly, given the quality and style of the writing we glimpse over Rory’s shoulder, like Robert Waller marveling at Nicholas Sparks’ “Message in a Bottle“). He is deeply moved. This is writing. This is art.
Inspired, Rory types out the novel into his computer. He says he’s doing this because he wants to feel the story streaming through him, but I find that hard to believe. Dora, without asking, reads it, believing it to be Rory’s work. She is deeply moved. She embraces him, insists that he give it to the world — and his agent. He keeps mum about its origins. But, interest piqued, he shows the novel to his brusque publishing guy, Joseph Cutler (Veljko Ivanek), who is deeply moved, looks at Rory almost with tears in his brusque eyes, and insists the book be published. Rory, in a weak moment, agrees.
The novel, now called “A Window Tear,” comes out and becomes a literary sensation. Audiences everywhere are deeply moved. Rory, his prayers answered, is now a famous and much-loved author. But then, suddenly….Sitting on a city park bench one day, staring into space (or Calvache‘s camera), musing on the ways of fate and fame, Rory is gently but firmly addressed by what seems to be an old, sad-eyed semi-bum (played, superbly, by Jeremy Irons). The Man says he is a fan of “A Window Tear” (the book, not the title), which deeply moved him. Rory, polite, nods, smiles, tries to leave, but then is more fervently accosted and even insulted. He is called a “pissant“ (that’s pissant, not puissant) and accused of thievery.
Uh-oh. This is not, it seems, just any old sad-eyed semi-bum who reminds you of TV’s “Brideshead Revisited.” This is the man who wrote the book that Rory stole, and what is more, who actually lived the book, lived all its beauty and sadness and pain, and then, with grace under pressure and phrases out of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, put it all down on paper that would eventually yellow. This is A Man, whose wife Celia lost the briefcase on a train (as Hemingway‘s Hadley once lost his manuscripts on another train.) The Man and Celia split up, and he never wrote again, saw her only once. He stayed a nobody and tried to forget his sad stillborn literary career, until one day he saw….
I liked this movie more than others have. It looks good. It holds your interest. It‘s about something, even if it could have been much, much better about it. Most of all, I liked it because there are books on the room shelves in the movie, instead of ceramics and little plants and such. In The Man’s Paris apartment, where he lives as a young writer and tragic figure, there are even books on the floor and on the steps of the staircase. And Jeremy Irons is tremendous.
The Words is the story of a writer who is a phony and a thief (Rory, who has very few books in his place). And of a writer who is a famous New York social lion and acts like a phony and a thief. (Clay, who has almost no books, if any, in his expensively barren place, which seems to have been designed for a man who never reads and never thinks of reading , or perhaps does it all on the Internet). And of a writer who lives and writes and loves deeply and loses almost everything, (The Young Man in Paris, who has books all over the place.)
It’s a story about plagiarism, written (and filmed) for a society where a lot of the books on our bestseller lists, are signed by people who never wrote them: all those literary shams who outsourced the job of writing their books to ghost writers. But if there are no books, and if the books left are counterfeits, is it still possible to need and love them as we used to? Will we ever actually have a world without books, a “Fahrenheit 451“ world without a Ray Bradbury? And will young writers still want to be Hemingway, or outdo Hemingway, or outdo Fitzgerald, or Virginia Woolf or Willa Cather? I just took a look at one of my bookshelves, packed and living and breathing with all those authors and more. I was deeply moved.