Nothing is harder to show in a movie than an artist in the act of creativity. The best you can achieve — a composer conducting his symphony or an artist slapping paint on canvass — is technique, not the process itself.
“The Words,” to its credit, wants desperately to capture the magic that inspires art. And it does so through the subterranean tactic of an artist who fakes his creativity. “The Words” is no fake though: There is a genuine, high-minded earnestness about the film yet, unfortunately, it falls well short of its goals.
Bradley Cooper plays Rory Jansen, a would-be novelist who finds an anonymous, long-lost manuscript that is supposedly a masterpiece of fiction. He then passes the manuscript off as his own.
Soon he’s the toast of the literary world and hero to his supportive wife, Zoë Saldana’s Dora. Then the real author, an Old Man played with heavy age makeup by Jeremy Irons, turns up.
On this level the film works as an intellectual melodrama — what does the Old Man want and will the fake novelist be forced to spill the beans and cause his own downfall?
But the film’s writer-directors, Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, really want to zero in on this thing called creativity so the thriller takes place in a story within a story and a book within a book.
It all begins when acclaimed novelist Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) delivers a reading of his latest novel and — hey! — it’s called “The Words.” This is the fictional story of Rory the plagiarist and Hemingway-esque Old Man who confronts him with his own duplicity.
So now the film has parallel story lines going, that of Rory and how he acquired and passed off the manuscript as his own and the Old Man and what happened to him in post-World War II Paris that lead him to write this one beautiful story — but never write again.
Each story concerns a marriage on the brink of unraveling — Rory and Dora’s and then the real novelist (Ben Barnes) and his French wife Celia (Nora Arnezeder). But wait. There’s a third story line.
A beautiful and seductive grad student, Daniella (Olivia Wilde), catches Clay’s eye at the reading. It isn’t hard for her to wangle an invitation back to his sleek New York apartment following the reading.
Only between all the foreplay, she asks questions and he makes replies that cause a viewer to realize “The Words” may not be work of fiction after all.
If this all sounds like a much too disjointed means to the filmmakers’ ambitious ends, it is. You’re going in and out of stories in different time frames while losing sight of movie’s themes.
The film is also compromised by the filmmakers’ considerable sympathy with their protagonist’s plight. Early in the movie you’re made to understand Rory is a fine writer with a novel of considerable merit the publishing world, typified by one publisher (Ron Rifkin), is too gutless to take a chance on.
Then Dora happens to discover the work in his computer and demands that he show it to an editor at the publishing house where he works.
Perhaps this attitude comes from the story of the movie itself. Klugman and Sternthal put their script through the Sundance Filmmakers Lab in 2000. As with Rory, no one would touch it until their childhood friend, Bradley Cooper, became a famous enough actor to star and exec produce the movie last year and thereby attract the likes of Irons, Quaid and Saldana.
“The Words” then is almost a justification for plagiarism. Rory does, after all, get a second novel published to acclaim so it’s not like he doesn’t have talent. Like Klugman and Sternthal sitting on the sidelines until their friend becomes a star, you take what you can to see your project into the light of day.
The Montreal-based production, doubling for contemporary Manhattan and postwar Paris, is appealing enough with Antonio Calvache’s somber cinematography and a lush score by Marcelo Zarvos.
The actors are a little too composed and self-possessed though as if being a writer means leading a quiet, calculating life. If Hemingway is the model here, then he’s proof that’s not true.
More’s the pity, the two great love affairs in the dueling stories get short-shift. Cooper and Saldana cuddle frequently but nothing in their interaction tells you they’re madly in love.
Then there is the great masterpiece itself. You have to take the film’s word that it’s brilliant but the story you’re told of a youthful marriage that fell apart due to tragedy doesn’t seem like the stuff of great literature.
Any story can be, of course, but what is hinted at on screen seems at best the basis for a good short story, not a novel. It lacks any complexity.
One wants to like films that challenge common wisdom about how things happen in any endeavor and the role luck plays in creative activity. “The Words” never quite manages this.
When the Old Man approaches Rory sitting on a park bench, the filmmakers deliberately have Rory reading John Fante’s “Ask the Dust.” That 1939 novel was nearly forgotten until Charles Bukowski championed its reprinting in 1980.
In his introduction to the book Bukowski writes: “There is much more to the story of John Fante. It is the story of terrible luck and a terrible fate and of a rare and natural courage.”
This finally is what “The Words” lacks. A sense of that terrible luck and terrible fate that happen to these writers a half century apart.
Opens: September 9, 2012 (CBS Films)
Production: Animus Films, Serena Films, Parlay Pictures, Benaroya Pictures
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Irons, Dennis Quaid, Olivia Wilde, Zoë Saldana, Ben Barnes, Nora Arnezeder, J.K. Simmons, Ron Rivkin, Zeljko Ivanek
Directors/screenwriters: Brian Klugman & Lee Sternthal
Producers: Michael Benaroya, Tatiana Kelly, Jim Young
Executive producers: Laura Rister, Cassian Elwes, Lisa Wilson, Bradley Cooper
Director of photography: Antonio Calvache
Production designer: Michele LaLiberte
Costume designer: Simonetta Mariano
Music: L Marcelo Zarvos
Editor: Leslie Jones
PG-13 rating, 103 minutes