A multi-layered romantic drama, The Words is one of those serious films that arrives after a summer of sequels and superheroes. Summer is the season of crass comedies, too, such as Words leading man Bradley Cooper’s star-making roles in The Hangover and The Hangover II.
Of course, The Words, a thoughtful story about lost writings and stolen identity, won’t draw audiences to theaters the way Hangover movies do. Nonetheless, it’s a solid drama that succeeds in delineating and distilling conflicting emotions and complex action.
Maybe one of the reasons The Words works is because two writer-directors, Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, guide it the screen. In less skillful hands, the story could have turned hazy and convoluted. And the script, developed at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, was at least a decade in the making.
Cooper, one of the film’s executive producers, plays a young writer in New York struggling to complete a novel. Despite humble circumstances, Cooper and his girlfriend, played by Zoe Saldana, are a happy couple. But Cooper’s dedication, perhaps obsession, with his work threatens to undermine his otherwise loving relationship.
The pressure Cooper feels to succeed grows. He anticipates a break when an agent asks to see him. Cooper is a gifted writer, the agent says, but his work is too artistic, too subtle for the contemporary publishing business. It won’t sell. Cooper, an actor so heavily identified with comedy, effectively expresses his Words character’s internal drama.
Dennis Quaid co-stars as an older, bestselling novelist. He’s in demand for public readings. At one reading, an admiring young graduate student (Olivia Wilde) makes her more than literary interest in him known. The third narrative in The Words features Ben Barnes as an American soldier whose military service begins just after World War II. Even though the hostilities have ceased, he ships out to France.
Having grown up in a small town, Barnes’ time in France opens his eyes to possibilities he hadn’t imagined back home. An intellectually minded fellow soldier introduces him to literature. A beautiful French woman introduces him to love.
As if three narratives weren’t enough for The Words, Barnes’ soldier exists in the movie’s script as both a young and old man. Oscar winner Jeremy Irons co-stars as the young American soldier who becomes an inspired writer.
Irons applies thespian slyness to the wryly confrontational scenes he shares with Cooper. It’s a game, played by the older man for a specific, devastating purpose. Irons, a writer whose work has never been recognized, wants Cooper to know that he knows the suddenly successful young writer’s secret.
Beyond its three-tiered, interlocking storytelling, The Words contains a series of life-changing confrontations. All three of the story’s writers face off with fellow principal characters as well as supporting characters.
Finding a satisfying ending for The Words must have been too much of a challenge for writer-directors Klugman and Sternthal. The well-crafted journey to the filmmakers’ nebulous conclusion, though, may be reward enough.