Twelve minutes. Twelve minutes is essentially all it took me to break The Words down into the 5 or 6 story beats it would end up hitting over the course of its running time, not to mention its all important ending twist. I say this not to give myself a pat on the back or promote myself as some sort of movie-predicting genius, but because I’m not sure it really matters that it only took me twelve minutes. Frankly, I’m not sure if twelve minutes is anything to brag about. Plot for the sake of plot, it seems, is not really what The Words is concerned with. On the surface, The Words is a movie about plagiarism. Bradley Cooper plays an author who finds a decaying manuscript in a withering old briefcase, a manuscript that is evidently so jaw-droppingly good he decides to pass the work off as his own. But underneath all that is a story about whether it’s possible to recover from a big mistake and, more importantly, whether an author even has the right to answer those kinds of questions. To be blunt, The Words is a blatant plug for the ambiguous ending. The film’s finale is drenched in subtext (though maybe not subtle as it could have been) and seems entirely unconcerned with resolving anything. In the process it makes a decent point about the way we view fiction and the power we give to authors in forming our own perceptions of the world. It’s an ending that takes guts as it’s certain to divide its audience.
Where The Words fails is in its execution. The majority of the movie is narrated from the perception of an author giving a reading, at one point even delving into a reading within a reading, and while for the most part it’s not too hard to follow (see the twelve minutes section of this review) it does give the film a rather smug tone. This movie takes itself very seriously and unless you already harbour romantic assertions about writing much of it will feel overwrought. Aside from Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Irons (playing the true author of the mysterious manuscript) The Words squanders most of its cast. Zoe Saldana’s wife character is shamefully underdeveloped, ending up feeling more like a prop than anything. Early on the film draws pretty heavily on the standard depiction of a starving artist and for most of that time I found myself wondering what exactly her character did for a living. I still don’t know the answer to that question.
The Words also spends a lot of time artfully expressing the difficulty and inherent loneliness involved in the writing process. It then undercuts that notion halfway through by making it seem as though truly great writing is somehow divinely inspired, effortless and unyielding when it hits you. There’s a debate to be had there but the film is too willing to forego it for my tastes. The Words asks some thought provoking questions but ultimately they fail to make up for the films abundant shortcomings. The ending will almost undeniably be polarizing and while I respect the willingness to take a risk, the rest of the film needs to be impeccable to really pull it off. The Words is not that.