Lake Oconee Breeze

On the Screen

September 13, 2012

'The Words' blurs the lines between liars and novelists

LAKE OCONEE — “The Words”

Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and smoking.


The Words has received a scalding response from film critics so I expected---poised even---to throw invective and poisoned verbal darts soaked in bile at it. But, I went and am prepared to turn my curmudgeon scorn on the critics. Let me put it to you this way: If the film had been made by the French, the critics would be a-swooning, extolling the layered sophistication and the clever ambiguity.

There is, at the outset, some confusion. Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) is a suave author about to read a large portion of his book to an adoring audience. (Viewers of BookTV on C-Span will roll their eyes at this depiction but it is, after all, the Hollywoodization of such an event). Author Hammond begins his reading. He tells a story of a struggling writer Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) living a Bohemian existence with his girlfriend Dora (Zoe Saldana). Ah, youth and love, and living for art sake…on daddy’s money (Daddy is played by ever popular J. K. Simmons). Everything goes along as might be expected. Nobody wants to publish his manuscript. He gets depressed but not enough not to get married and honeymoon in Paris (no doubt on Papa’s money---again). While visiting an antique shop, his new bride buys him a beat up old briefcase. Many months later, ready to give up on his dream of being a writer, he discovers a manuscript about an American soldier in France in 1944 who falls in love with a French woman.

The writer in this mysterious manuscript is a dumb rube who is inspired by a lent book, Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.” He reads and learns about the power of words. Let me pause here and tell you there are a plethora of parallels and illusions to Hemingway’s life. Whoop-de-doo for me because I am no Hemingway worshiper---but there you have it---I know it---so what?

Jansen is so moved by the manuscript he types it into his computer. His wife reads it and is so moved to tears by its literary beauty; he submits the manuscript as his own and becomes a famous writer. And then, you may have seen this coming, the authentic writer, known only as the Old Man, tracks down Jansen and more or less forces Jansen to admit that he stole a man’s life---the literary transcription of his soul.

But remember, we are being read this tale by another fiction writer, Clay Hammond. During his reading a comely lass, Daniella (Olivia Wilde), practically sexually swallows Hammond whole in an attempt at seduction of mind and body, demanding the rest of his story; Hammond losses all smoothness and suavity; he becomes a glob of unshaped clay.

We then begin to explore the question: what is truth and what is fiction? Where is the line between the author’s real life and the pack of lies he peddles as literature. What is plagiarism and is there such a thing as self-plagiarism.

There are liars and then there are novelists. Pray, what defines the difference? Or is there one?

The Old Man is played by Jeremy Irons. His performance is spellbinding, I think. Bradley Cooper does a very fine job. I particularly like his confession scene with his wife. Zoe Saldana is beautiful, without a doubt, who I think is a Salome but that is left to us to decide…as is the meaning of the ending. Like I wrote, it is ambiguous. When the screen went black and the credits rolled, I realized we had been duped, but that is OK with me.

In an exchange between the Old Man and Jansen, an obscure writer is mentioned. “What happened to him?” Jansen asked the Old Man (meaning why had he not become a world famous author).

The Old Man tells Jansen he knew him, personally. And he had an answer to Jansen’s question.

“Life” he said with a slight shrug.

Sometimes ambiguity is better than a happy, all-tied-up ending. I liked The Words. There really is no “The End” at the end of a novel, is there? It is still up to us to guess, the rest of the story and even the meaning of the tale told.

I may be all alone on this one, but The Words earns three and a half bow ties out of five.

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