Sundance Review: The Words

Plagiarism is something that all writers struggle with, whether it be the urge to pass off somebody else’s work as your own, or when someone does it to you. It’s never a good feeling either way. If you get stolen from, you feel wronged that something you created is being taken credit for. If you do the stealing, you feel the guilt that comes with being a reasonable human being. This is the central dilemma in The Words, the star studded, closing night premiere at Sundance 2012. Unfortunately, The Words never rises above being more than a mildly compelling examination of the artistic ambition.

Rory Jansen is a struggling author who has good things to say, but lacks the talent or draw that is needed to get a manuscript published. While on holiday with his wife in Paris, he comes across a forgotten manuscript in a weathered attaché case, and immediately realizes he has stumbled on to something special. Since there is not author on the pages, he decides to pass it off as his own creation. He is hit with instant stardom in the literary world, and seems to be riding high. That is, until the true author of the book presents himself to Rory, plunging him into a moral quandary that forces him to seriously examine the man he has become.

The story is framed like this. Rory’s story is the subject of a novel that is being read before a crowd by the novel’s author. It’s easy to follow, but it’s kneecaps the movie where it shouldn’t. This sort of multi narrative structure is usually the setup for a big reveal, and, unfortunately, the big reveal in this one is painfully obvious from when the first character steps onto screen.

This is a loaded movie for a independent film festival. Bradley Cooper plays Rory with all the same smarmy charm that we associate with him, but he does dial it back a bit in the more serious moments, and flexes some dramatic muscles that we haven’t seen from him. Dennis Quaid is pretty blah as the author of Rory’s story, though he does deliver some great line readings. Zoe Saldana is just ok as Rory’s wife, and Olivia Wilde doesn’t fair much better as a college student who puts the moves on Quaid’s character.

The real stand out here is Jeremy Irons as the aged man who is the real author of the manuscript. A hefty portion of the movie is him telling the story of how he came to write the book, and it’s the only time that the movie transcends it’s lazy premise and becomes something truly memorable and heartbreaking. Irons is bloody fantastic here, and leaves all other floundering in his wake.

The direction by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal is well done; it’s clear these guys care about this material. They’ve only been working on it for ten years. And the score by The MARCelo Zarvos is very well implemented, giving off a sense of tension and stakes that the movie would be sorely lacking without.

Though it does pick up some steam as it hurtles towards its big reveal, the fact remains that The Words just didn’t do enough new things with the material to warrant any sort of overwhelming praise. Irons singlehandedly elevates the movie into a higher class; the whole thing is worth seeing just for him.