May 20, 2018


Reading, Writing & Deceit

By Michael S. Goldberger

Special to the Observer


“The Words,” directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, is a story inside a story, and then for good measure, enveloped in yet another story…all of them pretty much wrapped up in the same conundrum: What price glory? But that’s just scratching the surface of this multi-layered contemplation, full of swell ideas but a bit too unwieldy in its presentation.

First meet Rory Jansen, portrayed by Bradley Cooper, only a few years out of college and distressed that he still hasn’t written The Great American Novel. Nope…the literati have made no comparisons of his work to Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” or Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”… not yet. Well, at least he has a supportive wife.

Too bad he can’t say the same for his dad, a successful manufacturer of widgets who wishes his dreamy offspring would do that thing most offensively disparaging to aspiring young authors. In other words, “get a real job.” Pressure mounts. Gosh, it’s not Rory’s fault that, after graduation, he just couldn’t seem to find his way to the Novel Factory.

It gets worse. Self doubt, the ogre that changes the author’s mantra from “I’m great” to “maybe I’m just a mediocre hack” rears its ugly head. The ego agonizes. The idea of just being part of the audience instead of the grand influence is anathema. So, as is usually the case in such parables, Rory must decide what to do when a shortcut presents itself.

If you’re a writer, morally it’s far more egregious than a baseball great taking steroids, or a decorated combat veteran accepting credit for a fallen comrade’s bravery. Think of it as a found package with that most detestable, unthinkable and shameful word stenciled on it: Plagiarism. Devil-sent, there’s no mistake about it if you open it and use it. None!

You are a fraud, a phony, a mountebank….everything that, as a writer, you’ve tacitly taken an oath to revile. You’re no better than the next guy, probably worse. Not only common and unremarkable, you’re a hypocrite. Oh, mother of mercy, the shame of it all. That is, if you get caught. Hey, don’t be so rash. Haven’t others gotten away with it?

Imperiously above it all, posing these multifarious questions of ethics is Dennis Quaid‘s Clay Hammond, the famous author of the allegory in question, reading selections of his tale to a rapt body of fans. And, just to add another stratum of inquiry into the whys and wherefores of literary ambition and success, enters the alluring Daniella (Olivia Wilde)

A Columbia grad student who inveigles her way back stage and soon wins the scribe’s eyes and ears, her intentions aren’t quite clear, maybe not even to herself. But whatever they are, a dusting of the room surely would find traces of power, lust, skepticism and fear. She wants to see where he writes. The, uh, interrogation moves to his apartment.

Ahem. With this bit of sexual tension tossed on, what was slightly convoluted now gets a mite bulky. And maybe too difficult to understand for some audiences if you consider a recent poll showing that nearly two out of three voters in Ohio and North Carolina aren’t sure who was more responsible for killing Bin Laden, the President or Mitt Romney.

In any case, this is more philosophical and thought provoking than it is artistically adept. But truth is, I’d be hard put to suggest how the directors might have made their cogitation on the vagaries of literary pursuit more accessible, and I know it was Mr. Obama who had the aforementioned terrorist leader eliminated. It is in the movie’s nature to ramble.

Additionally, while Bradley Cooper’s troubled protagonist is just barely credible enough for the story’s purposes, his performance is emblematic of some rather average acting performances. The exception is Jeremy Irons’s contribution as The Old Man. After a slow start, his compelling character proves central to all the quandaries being mulled.

Also helping save “The Words’s” most modest fortunes is the burning mystery at the heart of it all. At the promise of deep divulgences, the more patient of us have invested some emotion in the players. Sludge gumming the works or not, we want to know how this all came to be and how it might be resolved. We figure there has to be more to this.

Hence, the bemused audience that let me share their space wasn’t in a terrible hurry to leave once the closing credits rolled…speculating, as did I, that there might be a postscript before reel’s end. But, despite being inherently intriguing and winning my vote for the year’s best middling effort thus far, “The Words” is nothing to write home about.

“The Words,” rated PG-13, is a CBS Films release directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal and stars Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana and Jeremy Irons. Running time: 97 minutes 

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