Few people write for a living but many nurture the fantasy of doing so. Many an avid reader dreams of crossing over to the other side, producing books that are admired by people just like them. The Words is a movie for these people. No genuine writer could watch this film and remain unmoved by the depth of its shallowness.
For those who write only in their dreams there is something glamorous about the writer’s life. But writing is a matter of aptitude and temperament, combined with a willingness to spend many hours alone in a room having a bad time. Above all, writing is work – work that allows one to experience drudgery and anxiety without leaving home. It is an obsessive, anti-social activity that destroys relationships. But it’s also an addiction.
Films about writers often feel unrealistic because they seem to do everything but write. This is understandable because there is nothing especially gripping in watching someone sitting at a typewriter for hours on end. The same goes for bio pics of painters, who spend their lives slaving away in a studio.
The co-directors of The Words, Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, have tried to complicate matters by putting their imaginary writer, Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), inside another story, being read out by writer, Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid). In that story, Jansen achieves fame and fortune by putting his name to a manuscript he has found in an old briefcase bought in a Parisian junkshop. Everything is fine until an elderly man turns up who happens to be the real author (Jeremy Irons). This allows us to slip back into the past and discover the circumstances under which the novel was written, while wondering if Rory might be Clay’s literary doppelganger.
This tale within a tale within a tale introduces us to three women – Olivia Wilde as Daniella, a literary groupie who tries to insinuate herself with Clay; Zoe Saldana, as Dora, Rory’s supportive and hopeful wife; and Nora Arnezedar as Celia, the French girl who inspired the original manuscript. It is the fate of these women to be frustrated in various ways.
So far, so ordinary. I began reaching for the sick bag when characters started discussing Rory’s novel. The abiding quality of this book, it seems, is its truthfulness. It’s so true to life. It’s the most truthful thing Rory has done. It’s full of truth.
Leaving aside the fact that Rory is actually a fraud who has stolen another writer’s words, ‘truth’ is a very poor criteria for judging a work of fiction. One might just as easily argue it is the quality of invention that makes for a great writer, perhaps the ability to tell convincing lies.
One man’s truth is another man’s banality, as a writer may tediously analyse aspects of his own life that are of no interest to anyone else. Here we have a rough match for Milan Kundera’s “graphomania” – the compulsion to write about one’s own, uneventful life as if it were the stuff of great literature.
The idea of literature as “truth” is a dangerous cliché in the wrong hands. So too is the belief that young Americans have to go live in Paris – preferably between the wars – in order to write their masterpiece. But probably the hardest thing to accept is the image of Bradley Cooper as a tortured writer.
This is not so much a mis-casting as a necessary evil, because Cooper’s box-office viability, following the Hangover comedies, enabled the directors to sell the film to a big distributor. One assumes they shelled out not because of the ‘truthfulness’ of the script, but because audiences will pay to see any movie featuring one of this week’s celebrities.
The Words, USA, rated MA, 97 mins.
Published by the Australian Financial Review, October 13, 2012