Sundance 2012: THE WORDS Review

     January 27, 2012


If we give a piece of our lives and our souls to our art, then plagiarism is murder.  Just as murder steals a life, the theft of another person’s personal creative expression is akin to killing part of another’s soul.  But plagiarism also leaves a mark upon the thief.  It reveals their limitations, and a self-recognition that their art will never be as full or as rich as another’s.  The Words explores how this theft goes far beyond fame and fortune, and how our lives are no longer our own when we take credit for another’s work.  Writer-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal have pulled together a strong script, rich performances, and an incredible score to craft a compelling and captivating film full of deception, remorse, and guilt.

Author Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) is giving a reading of his new book, The Words, which is about Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper).  Rory is an aspiring writer but after five years and being unable to publish his novel, his life has slipped away and he’s stuck as a supervisor in a publishing firm.  While digging through an old briefcase he got in Paris, he discovers a manuscript.  It is the best novel he’s ever read, but there’s no author listed.  Rory decides to claim the work as his own, which eventually leads him to fame and fortune.  He manages to live in blissful denial until he meets the Old Man (Jeremy Irons), who is the novel’s true author.

The Words_Bradley Cooper_Jeremy Irons

The Words is three stories stuffed inside each other.  The old man tells his life story to Rory and Rory’s story belongs to Hammond.  The film sucks you in with Marcelo Zarvos‘s amazing score and with Antonio Calvache‘s cinematography, which shoots each of the three stories in a distinct style.  Hammond lives in a stark world of sharp angles and austere lighting, Rory’s world looks fairly normal, and then the Old Man’s story is shot in the admittedly cliché golden-sepia tones of post-war Europe.  The film’s biggest weapon is its voice-over narration as Quaid and Irons each narrate their own story.  Their voices are like graveled honey and you want them to narrate every audio book and, if possible, everything you do in life.

The fact that Rory doesn’t get a narration is fitting since he’s the plagiarist.  He doesn’t have any stories.  Cooper is perfectly cast and gives a wonderful performance as a man who seems just sleazy enough to do such an unethical thing, but also pathetic enough that we don’t completely despise him.  We can’t condone his actions but we can pity Rory since we understand the power of seeing someone else’s creativity and the frustration of our own limitations. The film is mostly a drama, but it also throws in some quick, clever jabs like when Rory first meets the Old Man and doesn’t know he’s the author.  The Old Man asks why Rory isn’t doing any writing, and Rory responds, “Today’s a reading day.”  The Old Man then follows by asking Rory to sign a copy of his book, but when Rory doesn’t have a pen, the Old Man lays a subtle insult by quietly noting, “A writer without a pen…”  Rory is creatively impotent and his greatest success will never be his.

The Words_Dennis Quaid_Olivia Wilde

There’s no easy forgiveness in The Words nor should there be.  The Old Man’s tale comes off as a somewhat mawkish and overcooked, but it works because it has a mirror to Rory’s life.  Both men were deeply influenced by their wives, but Rory’s creativity ran out when his life stagnated.  He still loves his wife Dora (Zoe Saldana) but his decision to avoid struggle in favor of comfort has left him with a dull life and no experience to craft a masterpiece.  When he takes the Old Man’s novel and claims credit for it, Rory has killed his future.  He’ll never create a masterpiece because he was never good enough to write his breakthrough novel.  It is the death of one man’s creative expression and an unforgivable sin.  Even worse, he has betrayed the power of his art.  Rory doesn’t alter a single word of the manuscript and since he simply transcribes the typewritten pages into a Word document, they’re just words for Rory.

The technical craft and stellar performances of The Words draw the viewer in deep enough that we don’t simply shrug our shoulders and say “Yep.  Plagarism is bad.”  Klugman and Sternthal intelligently extrapolate the crime and the stain it leaves on anyone who does it.  The drama isn’t about Rory getting caught or how the Old Man will respond.  It’s about how Rory will be haunted by his own inadequacies, and how the thing he loved the most will now be a cruel reminder rather than a creative outlet.  We even get a mystery angle because of Hammond’s presence since we know there’s an autobiographical element, but we’re not sure to what extent.  Through its brilliant storytelling, The Words provides a magnificent exploration of the cruel irony of stealing someone else’s life story only to lose the meaning of one’s own life and story in return.

Rating: A-

For all of our coverage of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my Sundance reviews so far:

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