Intellectual Property, by Josh Long
Any writer can tell you about the struggle to create something “great.” Does it come from pure talent, inspiration, hard work? Can anyone do it, or are some people doomed to mediocrity, forever reaching for something beyond their grasp? In The Words, Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) is a young writer so gripped with self-doubt that he’s willing to steal another man’s story for a chance at greatness. But is the film about his struggle with self-confidence? Or the woman who has always supported him? Or what happens when you steal someone else’s life? Or how you live with the sin that brought you success? A lack of commitment to any particular one of these themes is what keeps The Words from succeeding.
There isn’t much more to the story; Rory lives in New York with his wife Dora, struggling to make it as a writer. When he accidentally finds a brilliant manuscript in an old briefcase, he passes it off as his own. This brings him fame and fortune, but also brings him the man who originally wrote the work, and lost it. But this is actually a story within a story; it’s narrated by Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid), whose book The Words is about Rory’s life. Throughout the film we pull out of the central narrative to find Clay either reading his book to an audience or (later in the film) explaining it to grad student Daniella (Olivia Wilde). From the beginning, audiences will assume that maybe Rory’s story is Clay’s own story, and they will be disappointed to find that indeed, there’s nothing more to it than that.
Rory’s narrative, though it’s been done before, is still engaging, mostly because of the performances. Cooper has been working hard to escape Hangover typecasting, and he manages to turn in a full, well-rounded performance. It’s not easy to play a character that we side with, even when he makes a major misstep. His relationship with Zoe Saldana is realistic – we get a sense that both actors have worked to build the relationship outside the parameters of the film. It feels lived in, and thus more authentic. When Jeremy Irons appears as the Old Man, we know we’re in good hands, and indeed he even makes narration exciting.
In something of a logical flaw, there is a lengthy sequence where the Old Man tells his story to Rory. If Rory has already read the manuscript and passed it off as his own, why would he sit with rapt attention while the Old Man narrates it again for him? And why would the Old Man reiterate the story, when both parties are clearly familiar with it? Still, the Old Man’s flashbacks give us some great scenes (if melodramatic), once again due to excellent performances by Ben Barnes and Nora Arnezeder.
The fact that this it buried within several layers of story is what robs it of significance. The writers wrote this script about a writer, who writes a book about a writer, who steals the book of another writer. Too many layers of inception there for me. The weakest scenes in the film are the ones with Quaid and Wilde, the outermost layer of story (unless you count the writers of the film, or perhaps the anonymous writer from whom they stole it?). Their scenes are boring, their characters are undeveloped, and their existence in the film seems perfunctory. The filmmakers clearly include this plot to show us what happens to Rory (a stand-in for Clay) years down the road. But forcing an audience to accept the connection between these characters and then expecting them to empathize doesn’t work. The film then ends with the least interesting characters, and “reveals” the connection through clunky dialogue. Daniella pushes Clay for the truth behind the story, but why? Who is she, why does she care? Why should we care?
Things become even more muddled when the film suddenly decides that it was about Rory and Dora’s relationship all along (and thus, about Clay’s relationship with his wife – who we never see). The film suggests that maybe the point was that Rory needed to learn that Dora should be more important to him than his writing (a theme echoed in the Old Man’s story). If this should have been the focus all along, then we need more about Rory and Dora’s marriage. Once Rory publishes the book, Dora fades into the background of the film. The key relationship to the film shouldn’t be one we’ve nearly forgotten about. Also, there should be some sense that Clay has learned this lesson over the years, or that he’s learning it now. There’s a throwaway sequence where it’s suggested that maybe he’ll go back to his wife, but if this is so important, we need to see it.
The Words genuinely wants to give full due to this theme, but also to Rory’s writer struggles, and to Clay’s dealing with his deceit, and the Old Man’s dismay at his life story being stolen. The film simply spreads itself too thin by trying to be about all of these things. It would be much more effective to pick fewer (maybe only one) central themes and develop those more fully.
The film isn’t without its peripheral themes – there’s one that particularly stuck out to me. Rory is a “struggling” writer, but he’s from a loving family that’s able to prop him up financially when he needs it, he has a stable relationship with his wife and enough money that they can afford a honeymoon in Paris. The Old Man’s story is from his own life, and includes experiences in World War II, leaving his home to search for the woman he loves, losing a child, and being abandoned by his wife. This kind of conflict is beyond Rory’s imagination, and speaks to the generational gap between today’s writers and those of 50-60 years ago. Part of Rory’s inability to touch this “greatness” is that he hasn’t truly experienced tragedy – he’s comfortable. This theme is touched on, but never forced. If The Words was able to apply this light treatment to more of its themes, then it would have more time to decide what’s most important, and really hone the focus there. Unfortunately, it’s a film that will leave viewers wondering what it’s really about, because the film isn’t sure itself.