The Words: Bradley Cooper Lost in a Bad Book

Any cinematic attempt to depict the interior struggles of a writer at work — the frustrations, the inspirations, the search for the perfect word — is probably doomed to failure. Unable to show us such mental exertions, a filmmaker is compelled to fall back on externalities — the writer biting his lip over a keyboard and feverishly shuffling through his notes and so forth. Like any number of previous films in this genre (the dodgy old Lillian Hellman biopic “Julia” comes quickly to mind), “The Words” once again fails to adequately visualize creative labor. In a new wrinkle, though, this movie fails to do so in three different ways.

The picture begins with hot young author Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) on his way with his beautiful wife, Dora (Zoe Saldana), to an arts-and-letters awards ceremony, where he’s to be feted for his best-selling novel, oddly titled “The Window Tears.” (“It was supposed to be a little book,” Rory says, with gooey humility.) It’s a story about a young ex-GI — “the Young Man,” he’s called, played by Ben Barnes — in post-World War II Paris. He’s striving to become a writer. You see him striving, but of course you don’t see him thinking, creating. He takes up with a cafe waitress (Nora Arnezeder). They have a baby. The baby gets sick and dies. We see a doctor pulling a blanket over the little corpse in the crib. We’re struck by the shamelessness of this shot.

There’s been quite a bit of voice-over narration up to this point. It comes from Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid), a famous novelist who’s giving a reading of his new book, which is called “The Words.” This is the story of a young would-be writer named Rory Jansen. On a honeymoon trip to Paris, he comes across an old briefcase in a junk shop. His new bride, Dora, buys it for him. Back in Brooklyn, where they’re leading a scuffling existence (“We don’t have any money,” Dora points out), Rory discovers an old manuscript tucked away in the briefcase. This is the book that was finally tapped out by the Young Man, whose cafe waitress lover lost it on a train all those decades ago. Rory reads the manuscript, realizes it’s brilliant and proceeds to type it into his laptop, word for word. “He just wanted to feel the words pass through his fingers,” Clay says, still narrating for us. Ethically torn — although not too torn — Rory takes the new manuscript to an editor at a publishing house, passing it off as his own. The editor, too, realizes the book’s brilliance and publishes it, to instant acclaim.

We already have seen that Rory is being shadowed around New York by a character called the OId Man (wrinkly Jeremy Irons), who of course is the Young Man grown — well, old. He knows that Rory’s best-seller is actually his work. Is he angry? Yes. Well, sort of. Confronting Rory in a park, he tells the younger man, “You can’t make this right. Things are just things.” Whatever, I guess.

Given how much story the movie is already saddled with, it was unwise to cram in a subplot about a grad-student lit groupie (Olivia Wilde), who’s zeroing in on Clay. Under her questioning over a glass of wine, we see that the veteran writer is obscurely troubled about something. Is he a plagiarist, too? “We all make choices in life,” he says, unhelpfully. “The hard thing is to live with them.” (Even harder are the fleeting snippets of prose from the various books to which we’re treated; great writing can’t be faked.)

Writer-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal achieve some nice pictorial effects of the burnished glow variety, but the actors are adrift in the woozy story. Jeremy Irons brings some subtle emotional details to the wronged geezer, but Dennis Quaid, hobbled by a character who never is clarified, is reduced to free-floating craggy torment. And Bradley Cooper, playing a man who may or may not exist in this sappy narrative, is wasted. As the movie drifts along, we’re never sure where it’s going; all we know at the end is that it never got there.

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Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

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