Friday, September 7, 2012

The Words: They fail

The Words (2012) • View trailer
Two stars. Rating: PG-13, for profanity
By Derrick Bang 

I cannot imagine why anybody ever thought this thuddingly dull script could have made an interesting film.

When Rory (Bradley Cooper) finds a battered — but somehow
dignified — old briefcase in a cluttered Parisian shop, his wife (Zoe
Saldana, as Dora) insists that it's just the sort of thing that he needs
to have. Rory is, after all, a would-be writer; surely a briefcase like
this would be a good-luck charm? Alas ... maybe not.
Writer/directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal have concocted the sort of pretentious twaddle that snooty English department college professors publish for each other in stuffy academic journals. The first miracle is that they secured the interest of a mid-size film studio; the second miracle is the involvement of A-list actors such as Jeremy Irons, Bradley Cooper and Dennis Quaid.

Utterly astonishing.

You’d think the result would be worth viewing, with those folks on board. You’d be mistaken. This tedious study of morality — as it pertains to literary cheating — keeps dangling the promise of some “great revelation” in the final act, but the conclusion is frustrating, anticlimactic and ambiguous to the point of inciting a riot among viewers.

The tone was quite evident among the unhappy audience members at Tuesday evening’s preview screening: All that purple prose and soap opera-style build-up ... for this?


The narrative occupies three timelines, each with different sets of characters, all nested within themselves like Russian dolls ... or, if you prefer cinematic comparisons, like the layered dreams within Inception. We spend the most time with Rory Jansen (Cooper), a young writer introduced on the eve of a posh awards reception for his critically acclaimed first novel.

Rory and his wife, Dora (Zoe Saldana), are very much in love. Rory seems overwhelmed by the suddenness with which he has been thrust into the spotlight ... at least, that’s our assumption. In truth, Rory’s emotions are a great deal more complicated.

We slide back five years, to the moment when Rory and Dora, as a freshly minted couple, move into an impossibly small New York studio apartment. He writes constantly, hoping to impress the world with his narrative panache; we never get a sense of what Dora does outside the apartment. Does she have a job? A career? Plans for same? Beats me.

But they adore each other, and make do with occasional financial infusions from Rory’s father (J.K. Simmons, obviously snagged for a single day’s worth of quick scenes).

Rory finally succumbs to frustration and secures a menial job with a literary agency. He and Dora get married, and somehow are able to afford a honeymoon in Paris (!). While window-shopping, he finds a battered old briefcase; she buys it for him, believing it’s the sort of accessory a writer should possess.

Later, back in New York, he finds an old manuscript hidden within the case. He reads it and is overwhelmed by the talent on display. As more of an exercise than anything else — to feel the flow of such fine prose — Rory re-types the story into his laptop. Dora later reads it, makes the mistaken assumption that it’s her husband’s work, and...

...he doesn’t disabuse her of this notion.

She insists that he show it to an agent. He does. The rest we can extrapolate.

As it happen, though, this entire scenario — Rory and Dora, the book, the ethical dilemma — is just a story itself: an excerpt from a novel titled The Words, being read aloud at a posh literary event by author Clay Hammond (Quaid). This reception is being presented in two parts; between “acts,” as Clay rests back stage, he’s blatantly propositioned by a sexpot college student named Danielle (Olivia Wilde).

Who is this mysterious young woman? Why does she behave so oddly ... clearly guided by this film’s co-directors to do so? What’s her part in all this?

Hammond resumes reading to his audience; we return to Rory’s saga, just as he encounters an old man (Irons) whom we know, right away, is the actual author of the book for which Rory has taken credit. And so now we drift into this man’s past, in Paris during World War II: an extended interior drama being told to Rory (and us), just as Rory’s entire saga is being told to a different audience (and us) by Hammond.

The point of all this nonsense — the “tantalizing” thread woven throughout all three timelines — is the thin line that sometimes separates fiction from real life, and the importance of remaining on the proper side of that divide. OK, fine; that’s a reasonably intriguing philosophical topic for a cocktail party, but hardly enough of a hook on which to hang this puffed-up movie.

Klugman and Sternthal go out of their way to ensure that we perceive how wonderfully clever they are, and how deliciously tricky their script is. Every line of dialogue is weighted with “significance,” the camera frequently holding on somebody’s face for an extended moment of silent anguish: inner turmoil that we simply can’t imagine, y’know?

Stuff and nonsense. This emperor has no clothes.

Irons, at least, is skilled enough to deliver actual dramatic angst instead of the contrived emotions the directors pull from everybody else. The film briefly comes alive as we watch Irons’ old man ruminate on his past, and the fateful events that resulted in his failure to seize his own artistic moment. Sadly, not even Irons’ talent is enough to justify wasting a moment with this laughable drivel.

Cooper doesn’t (yet) possess the acting chops to sell his character, which becomes a problem when Rory is forced to confront the consequences of his actions. I also don’t believe the outcome of Rory’s encounter with the old man; that’s the sort of enlightening “moral lesson” that might make sense as an instructive classroom exercise, but things would never, ever, ever go down that way in real life.

Wilde’s character, as already mentioned, is far too artificially weird to be taken seriously; I suspect she got this job solely because she co-starred in TRON: Legacy, the only previous big-screen script to Klugman and Sternthal’s credit. (And how their experience in that arena made them think they could pull off something like this, I’ll never know.)

Quaid is acceptable, at first, but he also winds up over-acting atrociously in the final act, in an effort to bring sufficient weight to this story’s “big reveal.”

Michele Laliberte’s production design is engaging and far more credible than this story’s characters; Rory and Dora’s loft feels as claustrophobically authentic as the streets of WWII Paris. Marcelos Zarvos contributes a subtle orchestral score that tries to influence our emotional response to various scenes, but that’s a task the music can’t possibly accomplish.

On a completely trivial note — and I’m sure it’s coincidence — this is the second recent film to have displayed its title, in an initial scene, in a quite inventive manner. Ruby Sparks could be read in the clouds above Paul Dano, as he walked his dog toward the beginning of that film; this one identifies itself in the title of the book being read by Hammond, which rests on a table until he picks it up and heads into the auditorium.

Hardly enough incentive, however, to plunk down your hard-earned cash for a ticket.

Economics will render the appropriate verdict: This film is doomed to a quick box-office death, and it’ll be equally ignored in video afterlife. Word of mouth is guaranteed to be scathing ... except, perhaps, among pompous academics.

As for Klugman and Sternthal, I can’t say I’m eager to experience whatever they unleash next.

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