Last Saturday we decided to go to a movie. We had planned to see Samsara; which looked intriguing. Unfortunately, it closed at the local art house theater before we could get there. In its absence, we opted to see The Words. I really wanted to like this movie; and almost did.
The conceit of The Words is that it is the story of a book-within-a-book. It should be a-book-within-a-book-within-a-book and that difference is the source of the conflict.
Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) , a successful contemporary writer has written a novel about an unsuccessful contemporary writer; Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper). In Hammond’s book, after years of rejection and failure, Jansen becomes an overnight sensation when his novel is published to great acclaim. The problem is, he didn’t write it.
Jansen found a manuscript that was written right after Word War II. It had been lost and had never been published. Because the book is so well-received, Jansen allows everyone to believe he wrote it. The book was actually written, in his youth, by an unnamed, now old, man played by Jeremy Irons. Jansen’s novel is actually the Old Man’s memoir.
Becoming aware of Jansen’s book and it’s success, the Old Man seeks him out and confronts him. It’s not just that Jansen has falsely claimed credit for the Old Man’s work, he has stolen the Old Man’s life and published it as if it were fiction.
The movie seeks to explore the consequences of this situation for all involved; including Hammond as there is a possibility that his story of a writer stealing someone else’s work may be autobiographical.
I can’t fault any of the performances in the film. Jeremy Irons is wonderful as the Old Man, narrating the story of his post-war life; depicted by younger actors. Bradley Cooper; who does not need to be nearly as talented an actor as he is, given how good-looking he is; shows us the progression leading up the error in judgement that will change his life and his reaction to the consequences that follow.
I thought they did an effective job moving between the three layers of reality. Sadly, every time we go up a layer in the story, there is less clarity. The story of the Old Man’s life in post-war France is movingly depicted. We see Jansen’s struggle and failure as a writer; the cliché of struggling artist in a bad apartment. There is arc to Jansen’s story but there is not enough development to understand it. We are told Jansen is now successful and then we see him wracked with guilt. Why was the decision that changed his life made so easily? Having done so, why is he nearly destroyed by guilt when confronted by the man whose life he has stolen? Once the matter of the Old Man is resolved, how is he able to come to terms with it all so easily? It is as if the story would have progressed on the same path had the Old Man never appeared. We are shown Jansen’s guilt only so we’ll know he is really a good guy; after all.
The character of Hammond, played be Quaid, is even less revealed. The reason this is a problem is the central story line is the decision to steal the book and the consequences of that action. Most of the well-developed characterization, however, is in the glimpses we get of the action within the stolen book; the Old Man’s life.
There are wonderful issues to be considered here; the theft of someone else’s life story for use as fiction; the ethics of theft where there appears no likelihood of exposure; how one lives with the consequences of one’s mistakes that cannot be undone. Unfortunately none of these are illuminated very well in in this film. I like the fact that there is ambiguity in the resolution. But, in the end, what we have is a pretty good tragic love story of life in post-war France.