...shining light on the media, one review at a time
Emily Dickenson once said, “I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word.” Since given to human beings at their creation, words have permeated humanity’s identity, serving as the instigator and expression of wars, tears, hopes, dreams, relationships, and countless experiences of life. The old saying about “sticks and stones” seems far from accurate in reality, where words do hurt. Words have the power to build up or destroy and everything in between.
Even a visual medium like film is not independent of words, as they are at the root of a movie’s inception, from the screenplay to the dialogue spoken onscreen. Rarely, however, does a story examine itself and the cause from whence it came. Such introspection is usually only found in deeply artistic works, which rarely land on the big screen.
The Words is an exception to both rules, featuring a story that delves into the world of a frustrated artist, in this case a writer whose tale explores the vital nature and danger of words. Sadly, this well-acted romantic drama offers only a few positive messages amid several negative ones and content issues that include offensive language and illicit affairs. In The Words, the danger of words is clearly illustrated, but, as is often the case with misused language and creativity, not in the way that the film’s creators intended.
In the rough business of publishing, Clay Hammond has made it to the top. As the acclaimed author of the bestselling book, The Words, he is sought after for events that often include reading his work aloud. He does just that at the beginning of this film, launching his listeners and the viewers into Hammond’s story of another author who, at least initially, is much less successful.
Rory Jansen could be the archetypal struggling artist. Almost painfully for those who (try to) make a living in artistic professions, Rory’s battle to eke out a novel and then attempt to get it published is realistic and all-too-common. Writing with no publishing contract doesn’t earn much cash, and Rory’s dream of becoming an author can’t support him, let alone his live-in girlfriend.
When Rory’s father refuses to fund Rory’s full-time writing any longer, he takes a job delivering the mail at a publishing agency. Hoping the connections he makes at work will help his writing get noticed, Rory deals with the day job, getting married and writing less and less in the meantime. When he’s called into an agent’s office one day, Rory thinks his ship has come in, only to be told that he is extremely talented, but his work is too artistic and literary to be published.
Devastated by this and many more rejections, Rory is at a low point when he accidentally discovers a faded, yellowed manuscript tucked inside an antique briefcase that Dora, his wife, bought for him in Paris. As Rory flips through the aged pages, he is sucked into a story written with a greatness that Rory has always longed to achieve, but now believes he never can.
Wanting to feel the words himself, to experience what it’s like to come in contact with such literary art, Rory retypes the manuscript on his computer, not changing a word or even misspellings. What started out as an innocent idea becomes twisted when Dora stumbles across the manuscript and assumes that Rory wrote it. Her praise and pleasured astonishment at the beauty of what she believes is her husband’s work is enough to make Rory desperately want the story to be his. Desperate enough that he doesn’t tell her or the literary agent he takes the manuscript to that he is not its author. But, as the novel becomes an unexpected hit in the book world, Rory always knows the truth. As it turns out, he may not be the only one.
When Rory can no longer ignore the truth of his fraud, he is confronted with the seemingly impossible decision to either come clean or continue his charade. Whatever he decides, the words he chose to claim as his own will leave a deep, scarring mark.
In a film about words and those who write them, it’s appropriate that The Words’ screenplay takes center stage. Hard to ignore, the film’s unusual structure of a double frame narrative is a brave choice for a production aimed at reaching the big screen. A frame within a frame is hardly ever necessary, and often results in too much telling versus showing, confusion, poor pacing, and underdeveloped, uninteresting characters. Though The Words has the advantage of visually dramatizing these multiple stories, the movie still suffers from those usual consequences.
The need for Clay Hammond as the narrator of Rory’s story is unclear until the last portion of the film, rendering Hammond dull and seeming like nothing more than an unappealing interruption to the real action. As the story continues, most savvy viewers will realize there is significance in Hammond’s character, if only from the mere fact of his continuing presence. The build to developing Hammond at all, however, is painfully slow and gives too many opportunities for viewers to check-out during the film.
Perhaps the filmmakers intended to create a sense of mystery with these unexplained characters (Hammond and his oddly dedicated female fan) that would hold the interest of audiences throughout their apparently unnecessary scenes, but the movie fails to accomplish that objective. Instead, the scenes in which viewers see Hammond reading Rory’s story or the first scene in which Hammond gets to start telling his own only serve to interrupt and detract from an already slow-paced story.
Dramas, of course, are allowed to have a different kind of pacing than thrillers or action films, but The Words will still try the patience of modern drama fans, especially those who are not particularly into romance. Much of Rory’s story, by far the most engrossing and central one, focuses on his romantic relationship with Dora, showing its early phases and their married life. Similarly, romance plays a large role in the other character’s tales, including Hammond’s and the Old Man who enters Rory’s life and tells his romantic story.
Many of film and literature’s most unforgettable stories are romantic ones, but The Words misses the important element that is necessary for the great romances—true love. Instead, all of the romantic relationships in this movie are based on physical attraction and superficial fulfillment, rather than the genuine commitment and sacrificial, unconditional love that accompany lasting marriages. The immature affections and lack of depth that defines the relationships in The Words are perhaps best illustrated when Rory asks Dora why she loves him, and she gives an achingly inadequate answer that she has to sum up with “I just love you.”
The shallow marriages depicted in The Words are the natural result of relationships that started with physical intimacy out of wedlock. Rory and Dora supposedly must wait until they have enough money to get married, but lack of funds or moral concerns don’t stop them from living together before committing. Even the Old Man’s tale from the 40’s features a young couple who are physically intimate before they take the marital plunge.
[SPOILER WARNING] It’s little wonder, then, that all of these romantic relationships fall apart when they hit unhappy times. The Words gives several dramatic examples of the horrible corollary to building a relationship on physical lusts and a temporal, selfish brand of happiness. Most viewers, however, will not likely leave the theater having learned that lesson, because the film obviously intends and communicates a contrary message. The Words sets forth these romances as epic love stories of true lovers, perfect romances which, to be considered classic in Hollywood, must inevitably end in tragedy.
Some might think conservative viewers should be grateful that a secular film has their characters get married at all, but when the immorality before the vows is portrayed as perfectly natural and morally right, while the marital event itself is reduced to an unnecessary punctuation mark on an already consummated relationship, the removal of any sacredness from marriage is more complete than if it had been skipped altogether.
The content problems with The Words don’t stop there. The heavy romantic content naturally means showing more than one love-making scene. The film avoids any rating note of “sexual content” by cutting away before these moments become overly graphic, but there’s enough removing of top layers of clothing, fondling, making out, and the like to be inappropriate, particularly given the unmarried state of the people involved when the worst is shown. Offensive language takes its time to make an appearance, but comes in with a bang when it arrives, racking up plenty of “s---,” “h---,” “a--,” “f---,” and “d---,” often coupled with profane uses of the Lord’s name.
Flaws in structure and content are contrasted by otherwise strong production quality, which may be enough to make some forgive or miss the harmful elements of The Words. In such a slow-moving, character driven piece, the faces on screen and the voices speaking those all-important words had better be compelling and know what they’re doing. In this aspect, The Words dots all the “i’s”, displaying an impressive cast of leads and supporting actors who all seem to be at their best.
Bradley Cooper as Rory shows first-rate chops as he meets the demands of his nuanced, changing character, whose complicated motivations and dishonorable actions would have no hope to gain empathy with an audience but for Cooper’s gripping performance. He is well-paired with Zoë Saldana, who plays Dora with her usual authenticity, beautifully blossoming in this broad role that allows her to portray a wider range of emotion than the grittier roles she often fills.
Dennis Quaid and Olivia Wilde do the best that they can with their limited and rather forced roles, while Jeremy Irons gives a strong showing as the Old Man (despite an overdone makeup effort to make him look haggard and aged). The romantic story that is second in importance to Rory’s tale also features surprisingly powerful actors Ben Barnes and, in particular, Nora Arnezeder.
The Words manages to convey a few positive messages, as well. The danger of misusing words and the beauty of using them well is explored throughout, as is the idea of deception. While the characters in this film do not make the right decision concerning the truth versus lies, their choices are shown to have detrimental, life-long consequences. The idea of choice, then, emerges as another theme that is explored with positive results, as the characters and story emphasize the reality that people’s circumstances, good or bad, are the results of decisions they make. The common fallacy of “I don’t have a choice” is nowhere to be found in The Words, but rather the acknowledgement that “we all make choices in life.” “The hard part,” as the Old Man says, “is to live with them.”
Most overtly, The Words illustrates the utter loss and destruction that occurs when one places too much value on personal success or achievement. In this film, characters make the mistake of loving “the words” too much—of putting them before the love and happiness of their spouses. The glory of words, in this case, is clearly tied to what they signify—a moment of creative genius intended to be recognized by the world as greater than others’ words. Thus, the characters who give up everything else for “the words” are actually offering all to the idol of personal fulfillment and widespread recognition. Their misery, conscience-inspired regret, and the subsequent banishment of all joy from their lives is memorable evidence for the travesty of such a choice.
Even this most admirable message is undermined, however, by the fact that The Words’ morality only extends to recognizing a reduction of the top standing that love is supposed to have in the characters’ lives. There is never an understanding that lying or idolizing artistry is wrong because such actions are unethical, but only because they endanger the happiness of others, most particularly (and the worst sin of all in this story), jeopardizing or abusing a romantic relationship. In The Words, deception and inappropriate obsessions are only wrong if the characters who make these mistakes are guilty of placing their own interests before their lovers’. [SPOILER WARNING] Yet, such self-serving choices are already at the center of these same relationships that feature a skewed sense of morality, which goes unnoticed as the real cause for their eventual, disastrous end.
In a sense, The Words accomplishes what every filmmaker wants—viewers leave the theatre talking and thinking about what they’ve just seen. But, their discussions and questions are more due to a confusing structure and inexplicable characters than meaningful or challenging content. Superior acting and a few positive themes are not enough to rescue this film from its structural weakness, offensive content, and pernicious messages.
The Words shows just how dangerous words can be by using them to convey ideas that are better left unspoken, unheard, and unseen. Thanks to the film’s predominant (and shallow) romantic content, as well as its artistic emphasis and slow pacing, The Words will likely only interest a fairly narrow audience. With as many stutters as one finds in The Words, that’s a limitation to be thankful for.