Have you ever woken from a dream and found yourself still carrying it around for the rest of the day? The dream has passed, but you carry it on the tip of your brain like some version of yourself that could have been real but simply slipped into oblivion as you awoke. As I left the theater after watching The Words, I felt this itch within my brain: a confusion as to what was real and what wasn’t.
The film’s trailer presents a clichéd plotline: Author Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) cannot get his own work published and resorts to plagiarizing the unpublished work of a man 60 years his senior. Of course, this comes back to bite him and he is faced with moral issues, guilt, blah, blah, blah: nothing out of the ordinary or too unpredictable. The only thing that kept me from bolting out of the theater during the first hour was the confusion nagging at me from the first scene. The entire movie is narrated via a book reading by author Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid). To be honest, the constant interruption of Quaid’s irritating voice breaks the movie’s flow and jars the audience. This flagrant, awkward voiceover was so bizarre that for the first hour I kept asking myself: Where does he fit in during all of this?
As the second segment of Hammond’s reading commences, we are introduced to the true author of Jansen’s book, an old, unnamed man played by Jeremy Irons. The Old Man then proceeds to tell Jansen his story. A flashback introduces us to our author as a younger man — naturally named The Young Man. Played by Ben Barnes, this Man branches into the 186th plotline of the film, relaying his story through the aged version of himself to Jansen, whose story is thus recited by Hammond to an audience of students and all of which is transmitted through pixels and gigabytes onto a multiplex movie screen before a very confused audience.
At this point, the film actually attempts to build substance behind this overly complex facade. We are no longer simply dealing with woe-is-me Jansen and his unrealistically supportive wife, Dora (Zoe Saldana). The post-World War II story set in Paris reverts to a softer, Technicolor-esque visual palette, finally bringing real issues to the table. After the first monotonous hour, Klugman and Sternthal give us characters we actually care about and begin to blur the line between fiction and reality, character and person. The characters themselves, as authors, begin to question the reality of their worlds: “You have to choose between life and fiction. The two are very close, but they never actually touch,” stresses Hammond.
The film lacks a moving soundtrack, stand-out performances or any noteworthy cinematography. What it does have is a story ― in fact, it has several ― and though it may at points feel like the Inception of the literary world, it speaks with a strong voice to anyone who takes the time to enjoy the arts. It asks us all where our lives end and our world around you. Present to demonstrate the distinction are Dora, Celia (Nora Arnezeder) and Daniella (Olivia Wilde). These women represent the opposite of the fictional world: they are the real life that the three authors have and must choose whether to fight for. The stories of these women do not intersect, but each must look beyond the romanticism of life and face humbling conclusions. As time passes, each character must come to terms with the fact that stories go beyond the page. Finally, they are forced to confront the choices they have made and who they face those consequences with.
The movie is not spectacular: The pacing drags and there are no stylistic gems to write home about. This film’s only merit is that unlike all the other mindless drone films in the world, it makes you think — far more than is necessary in fact. A surgeon general’s warning should precede the opening credits. True to its attempt at sophistication, morality and true love do not necessarily win. Though the majority of the film lack depth, there is a final message to all who try to hide away in fiction: Life gets in the way, even for those who choose to avoid it.