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Movie review: 'The Words' can't add up to much of a film

Bradley Cooper stars as a writer who takes another author's work as his own. But Cooper seems to have lost his way in this literate but disappointing film.

September 06, 2012|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Irons star in "The Words."
Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Irons star in "The Words." (Jonathan Wenk / CBS Films )

I like that Bradley Cooper has used his recent success to choose projects with an intellectual bent, ones that should give us more to chew over than whether "Hangover 3" will be even remotely funny. Some day he's going to find the right mind-game match. But today is not that day and "The Words" is not that movie.

It's a snooze. Like a bedtime story for adults, much of the film is framed by scenes of wildly popular author Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) as he reads excerpts from his latest bestseller, titled "The Words." Even with all the intrigues we discover within those very literate pages, and with Quaid's dramatic baritone trying to elevate it, the movie still feels like a glorified books-on-tape (no disrespect, just a different medium).

Written and directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, "The Words" tries too hard to be smart with its highbrow take on the old "gotcha" theme. It is gorgeously shot to look highbrow as well; in that it succeeds.


FOR THE RECORD:
"The Words": In the Sept. 7 Calendar section, the movie review of "The Words" referred to the "myth of a Hemingway manuscript lost during a train trip through Spain." In fact, a suitcase full of Hemingway manuscripts was lost by the author's first wife, Elizabeth Hadley Richardson, at the Gare de Lyon train station in Paris. —

The filmmakers, who were boyhood chums and have collaborated for years, are playing with the old myth of a Hemingway manuscript lost during a train trip through Spain. But rather than adopting the artful storytelling of their muse, they have built a house of cards out of four writers and their intersecting stories — one that collapses both literally and literarily by the end.

Cooper plays Rory Jansen, a struggling young author unable to get published. He still manages to have a great Manhattan apartment shared with a supportive sophisticate in Dora (Zoe Saldana, beautifully polished for the part). On their honeymoon, they come across an old briefcase in a Paris antiques shop. Back home, as the rejection slips for his own work stack up Rory discovers a manuscript in the briefcase. If you're wondering how he missed it before, that will not be answered in a satisfying way and is indicative of potholes in the plot.

What happens when Rory claims the manuscript as his own, and the price that comes with the success that follows when he does, is not just the central conundrum of the movie, but also the centerpiece of the novel Clay is reading to us. We see Rory's story play out like — well, like a movie, only slightly different in tone than the one in which Clay is starring.

So we've got two authors thus far: Clay reading and Rory busy being the protagonist. Enter "the Old Man," the best of the rest thanks to a finely nuanced Jeremy Irons doing a lot with a little. It seems the old man once wrote a story and left it in a briefcase on a train in France. And now the story that he wrote — of Paris in the '50s after the war, of true love, of crushing heartbreak — starts playing out like yet another movie, one that at times is more interesting than the other two we've been watching. It also introduces us to the fourth and final writer, the Young Man (Ben Barnes).

The conflict running through "The Words" is of the morality play variety — how one deals with the ripple effect of a major ethical lapse. Whether redemption is even possible when the betrayal is so absolute — yourself, everyone you care about and even a stranger on a train. That should have generated serious soul-searching, and real fear at the possibility of public exposure for Rory. But neither of those emotional arcs come close to being electrifying, when that is exactly what they should be.

It proves to be the film's ultimate undoing. Because despite the competing story lines of the other writers, "The Words" is from beginning to end Cooper's movie. Rory's ups and downs are supposed to dominate, and in sheer screen time they do. But too often the actor seems to have lost his way, not completely convinced he can be a writer anymore than Rory is; all the confidence he gave the morally tested writer in last year's "Limitless" has gone missing.

What saving grace there is comes in the look of things. It's lush in the right places, lean in others; director of photography Antonio Calvache and production designer Michele Laliberte outdo themselves with one beautiful pallet after another.

The richness of those images alone can be so seductive that it is possible to be satisfied with nothing more for a while. But as we know, beauty fades and that leaves us going back and forth between Clay's life, Rory's life, the Old Man's life, the Young Man's life — if you were bored reading that sentence just imagine if it were playing out like a movie.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

'The Words'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for brief strong language and smoking

Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

Playing: In general release

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