Leaving the theater after seeing The Words this week, another audience member – a stranger – mentioned to me how odd it seems that the movie isn’t adapted from a book.
I knew exactly what she meant. It isn’t just that The Words is set in the publishing world and features not one but three major characters who are novelists, nor is it merely that storytelling lies at the heart of it.
No, the main reason why you expect The Words to be adapted from a novel is that it the movie is shaped like a novel. The pieces fit together the way they would in a complex novel. The movie feels as if it were adapted from a novel by young screenwriters who hadn’t yet learned that movies are different from books and who had not yet learned the tricks of the trade about making audiences care about characters.
If you’ve seen the trailers, you know that the story involves a young writer (Bradley Cooper) who yields to temptation and takes credit for a novel that someone else wrote. His life of thwarted ambition was miserable before, made bearable only by the love of his wife (Zoe Saldana). After publishing the novel, he becomes an instant success, but he still is miserable because he is living a lie.
The trailer suggests that a character played by Jeremy Irons is the person who actually wrote the book and then lost it – much like Earnest Hemingway lost a satchel containing his earliest short stories – on a train in Paris shortly after World War I. (Don’t do the math – it doesn’t add up. Iron’s character would be more than 100-years-old.) He isn’t pleased that someone is taking credit for his creation.
We are prepared then, based on the trailer, for two stories – one contemporary, the other set in Paris in the early part of the 20th Century. Dennis Quaid also appears in the trailer, also playing a writer, though it isn’t clear how he fits in.
The movie’s first of many boneheaded moves is clearing up that mystery at the start: Quaid plays a writer who has written a book titled The Words. Yes, the young writer and his wife and Jeremy Iron’s old man and Paris all are made up – it’s the plot of Quaid’s book. No wonder nobody behaved like real people.
Telling a movie audience up front that the characters they’re supposed to be emotionally invested in are only characters in a book written by a character whom they don’ t know and about whom they don’t care is a sure fire way to make certain the audience never become invested.
The movie is like a Russian nesting doll. It consists of a story within a story, which then sits inside yet another story. Having so many layers of artifice is another way of keeping your audience at an emotional distance.
Despite the apparently convoluted plot, the action in the movie actually is very simple. Quaid’s character reads two-thirds of his book to an adoring audience. During a break in the reading, he meets an attractive writing student (Olivia Wilde) who seems intent on seducing him. Later, they go to his apartment, where she persuades him to finish telling her the story of his book.
That’s it. That’s what happens. Unfortunately, these two “real” characters don’t behave any more realistically than the fictional characters in Quaid’s book. What we see of them is more puzzling than anything else.
I can’t vouch for the quality of Quaid’s writing in his novel, but the writers of this movie botched it, big time.
This is the first directorial effort of the two young screenwriters, Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal. Klugman and Cooper are childhood friends. That’s why Cooper got involved. And Cooper’s support undoubtedly is the reason the movie got made and so many other fine actor joined the cast. (J.K. Simmons, Ron Rifkin, Zeljko Ivanek and Michael McKean also play small roles.)
It was nice of Cooper to help a pal, but I wish he’d persuaded hm to let a real screenwriter take a stab at the script before turning on the cameras.