I was genuinely hoping that the early reviews for The Words were off-base, but the film is at best a well-intended failure. I do think it’s somewhat better than the negative pile-on suggests, but not enough to come even close to something I’d recommend. The fellows who wrote and directed it — Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal — have only one previous film credit — the story (not the screenplay) for TRON: Legacy (2010). They clearly have deeper concerns. In fact, what they seem to have been aiming for was to come up with a variant on Stephen Daldry’s The Hours (2002). They have a similar sounding title, literary pretentions, three interconnected stories to cut between and even an ersatz Philip Glass score by Marcelo Zarvos. In theory, I don’t object to this. There’s nothing wrong with aiming high — and one day they may make a movie as good as The Hours. This isn’t it. The Hours had a brilliant structure and three powerful stories — courtesy of a strong book. This has a haphazard structure and three weak stories — courtesy of a literary anecdote. It’s not a fair match.
The idea here is to take the story about Ernest Hemingway’s wife Hadley losing a suitcase containing his manuscripts in a train station — and run with it. And run with it, the film does. Here it becomes a single novel lost by the wife (Nora Arnezeder, Safe House) of an author whose name we never know (played by Jeremy Irons as an old man and Ben Barnes, Easy Virtue, as a young one) in a briefcase on a train — a novel that will one day find its way into the hands of a struggling writer (Bradley Cooper), who will publish it as his own. (If you’ve seen the trailer, you already know the basics of all this.) Now, this might have worked on its own — if the characters had been better developed — but that, of course, would leave the film one story shy of the three story structure. So the film drags in Dennis Quaid as an author at what must be the longest book-reading since the days of Charles Dickens — and it is he who will read us the story of the struggling writer publishing the book he chanced upon. This not only adds nothing — apart from Quaid reading from a very bad book — it attempts to drag in “something more” involving Quaid and a female fan (Olivia Wilde) that’s meant to suggest that maybe the book he’s reading from is autobiographical. This not only doesn’t work, it heads straight to an ending that I suspect Klugman and Sternthal thought was heavy with ambiguity. In truth, it serves to make the film just stop rather than end.
What you end up with here is a movie about six actors in search of characters that barely exist. Jeremy Irons comes out of it all pretty much intact, if only because he gets to retreat into enjoyably flamboyant ham. Everybody else seems to be trapped in a story where they say and do things without any clear reason why. The narration — or the supposed novel reading — is apparently meant to explain actions, but most of the time it only tells us things we’re already looking at but without illuminating them. As a result, everyone seems to be doing what they do for no real reason other than because the screenplay says so.
What makes it all so shaky is that the film wants to be literary, but reduces literature almost completely to Ernest Hemingway — and even further, to one book, The Sun Also Rises. This makes it very hard to believe that either the characters or the filmmakers are of quite the literary bent they’d have us believe. The results? A slickly made picture that fails to convince as drama or much of anything else. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and smoking.