One of the many reasons I write about drama — or write at all, period — is not just because of the films and Broadway shows that I was lucky enough to be exposed to as a young girl living in New York. Yes, I live for costume dramas and shows with spectacle, but it’s always been more than that: it was always, above all else, about the storytelling behind the smoke and mirrors. In many ways, stories are what drive us; they connect us to those long gone, bridging the gap between generations past and present. Nowhere in modern film, apart from Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011), has that idea been so strongly represented on celluloid than in Klugman-Sternthal’s collaborative effort, The Words (2012).
The film — which boasts an ensemble of stars such as Dennis Quaid (CBS’s Vegas), Olivia Wilde (Her) Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook), Zoe Saldana (Star Trek: Into Darkness), Jeremy Irons (Showtime’s The Borgias), to name a few — is told in three different timelines, each one being told by the other. At the film’s opening, we see author Clay Hammond (Quaid) giving a reading of his novel, The Words. He tells the story of Rory Jansen, an aspiring novelist played by Cooper, who struggles to get his work published. While he struggles, living on whatever loans his working class father (J.K. Simmons, in a surprise cameo) could willingly provide. Eventually, after many tireless attempts at courting various publishers, Rory and his wife Dora (Saldana) fall into a daily routine as live-in lovers before marrying and subsequently honeymooning in that city of cities for writers: Paris, of course.
It is in Paris where, after visiting his literary hero Ernest Hemingway’s plaque on the Rue de Cardinal-Lemoine, Dora finds an old briefcase in an antique shop and buys it as a present for her new husband, not knowing the secret he’ll eventually discover in it. The secret, as it turns out, is an aged manuscript that seems to have been tucked away in the back pocket of the briefcase for years. Upon finishing it, Rory is simultaneously in awe and intimidated at the words he’d just read on the page. Before we know it, he is sitting at his desk, re-typing the words from the manuscript onto his computer because, as our narrator Hammond describes it, he “needed to feel what it was like to touch it.” With no intentions of doing anything with it, he comes homes to find Dora in tears, having read the manuscript herself on his laptop and — ignorant of its true source — insists that Rory take it to his publishers at once.
The story – which Rory titles The Window Tears – is published and welcomed to great fanfare as the newest literary darling, winning a plethora of awards. It is at one of these awards ceremonies that another character in the story reveals himself: an Old Man lurking in the shadows (played by the inimitable Irons himself). That next day, he sits down on a park bench next to Rory and starts conversation with him, feigning the role of just another fan of the young man’s work. However, behind the Old Man’s affability seems to belie a different motive and sensing this, Rory starts to make his leave. That is, until the Old Man starts to tell him a story “about a man who wrote a book and then lost it — and the pissant kid who found it.”
This grabs Rory’s attention long enough to stop in his tracks, and the film heads into its third act, with the old-timer describing in detail the story from which the words in Jansen’s supposed novel are derived. Like layers of an onion, the years fall back in time to Paris in 1944, at the tail-end of the Second World War. The Old Man is now 18 years-old, and though sent abroad as a young soldier, he never saw battle. During this time in Paris, he not only falls in love with books and words, but also with a French woman named Celia. What transpires afterwards is a heartbreaking series of events which finally inspires the man to finally write.
Upon hearing the true story behind the words he’d paraded as his own, Rory is simultaneously awed and guilt-ridden. After finally confessing to both Dora and his agent, Rory goes back to the man and offers him payment in kind — which the old-timer adamantly refuses. He advises Rory to just walk away, stating, “We all make choices in life. The hard thing is to live with them.” The Old Man walks away, his last statement ringing in his younger counterpart’s ears like the bell on a typewriter, signalling finality.
Only, it doesn’t quite end there.
When we return to the world of author Clay Hammond, his audience — grad student Daniella (Wilde) — is left bereft at the ambiguity of the story. At one point, Hammond states: “That’s it, the end. No moral, no comeuppance, no incredible gain of knowledge other than the belief that, after making a terrible mistake in life, that one can continue to live and perhaps even live well.” Daniella is convinced that there’s more truth to the fiction than the author lets on. Perhaps he has been able to forget and write and “fool a few people,” she challenges. Or perhaps, she further ventures, “when he’s alone late at night, he can’t sleep, because when he closes his eyes he still sees the face of that old man.”
It is through this exchange with Daniella that we realize that Hammond himself may be the troubled young author portrayed in his own story. Suddenly, that “mask of confidence” the woman before him alluded to fades, only to reveal a tired, worn face — perhaps one tired of hiding from the truth. As the film finally draws to a close, he tells Daniella: “Sometimes you have to choose between life and fiction — the two are very, very close but never actually touch.”
As previously mentioned, this film features a cast of familiar faces, and in that regard — as far as acting is concerned — it does not disappoint. Cooper delivers a compelling performance reminiscent to that of his turn in 2011’s Limitless, wherein he also portrays a writer desperate for a break. Other standouts include: Quaid, in his best Creepy Lit Professor impression; and Irons, as the spurned Old Man struggling to live with past traumas. But perhaps the most notable performance are the two actors, Ben Barnes (The Chronicles of Narnia trilogy) and newcomer Nora Arnezeder (Paris 36), who portray the lovers Young Man and Celine, respectively, during the Paris sequence. Their portion of the film was heartbreaking and encompassed for me a bulk of my emotional investment in the story; this is no doubt owed much to their chemistry, as well as their commitment to their roles.
The Words, just as its title implies, is a visual ode to the written word. All obvious Hemingway references aside — lots of obvious and not-so-obvious easter eggs abound throughout, including an actual copy of The Sun Also Rises featured in close-up at one point — it is a provocative portrait of the fine line between reality and fiction, and how sometimes the two collide more often than we realize. It’s a daring premise that sometimes the lengths artists will go to in order to tell a story…may not have any moral tied to it, after all.
Because ultimately, it’s the stories — not us — that go on living forever.