Why a Pretentious Movie About Writers Is Worth Seeing

I was prepared to hate The Words before I saw it. Lord knows, we scribblers need inspiration. But whether cinematic versions of writers are about brand names (Capote, Hemingway & Gellhorn) or fictional authors soulfully fondling their typewriters, these films tend to annoy the heck out of me.

Young Writer and Wife; press image from "The Words"

So how come I actually like The Words?

Reading the press release before the movie opened in September, I predicted high-class cheese:

“Starring Bradley Cooper, Oscar®-winner Jeremy Irons, Dennis Quaid, Olivia Wilde and Zoë Saldana, the layered romantic drama The Words follows young writer Rory Jansen who finally achieves…literary success after publishing the next great American novel. There’s only one catch—he didn’t write it. As the past comes back to haunt him and his literary star continues to rise, Jansen is forced to confront the steep price that must be paid for stealing another man’s work.”

This PR synopsis sounds more coherent than the movie is. The main plot line of Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) and his wife (Zoë Saldana) is also the story of the Dennis Quaid character’s latest novel, The Words. Then we get flashbacks to 1940s Paris, voiced by the “Old Man” (Jeremy Irons), which depict the story at the heart of his novel—the one Rory ends up stealing.

There’s cheese at this moveable feast, no question, especially with Dennis Quaid as a big-name author. But the overlapping stories also get under the surface of why people do what they do. This emphasis on internal motivation is the terrain of writers, and The Words conveys the creative process with far more depth than the usual movie clichés.

Meanwhile, most reviewers panned the film. “The story-within-a-story-within-a-story is so slight and inconsequential, like the tiniest of a set of Russian nesting dolls,” writes Christopher Orr of the Atlantic, “that we may be forgiven for letting our minds wander toward bedtime and tomorrow’s errands.” According to Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe, “the first-time writer-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal have made a drama of spinelessness, passivity, and mild pretentiousness.”

Such reactions reflect an American cultural bias against the interior life—and for that reason alone, The Words deserves a second chance. In comments like “slight and inconsequential” and “spinelessness,” I see critics knocking a very basic literary notion: What goes on in our heads can greatly affect the course of our lives.

To continue reading, click on The Words: Lit With a Capital L” in Talking Writing.