‘The Words’: Keep talking

September 7, 2012

Stories within stories – “The Words” sometimes threatens to swallow itself whole.

The fact that it doesn’t is a tribute to writer-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, whose intriguing script uses each of its plotlines to resonate with and reflect the others.

The film starts with Dennis Quaid, as an author named Clay Hammond, who is reading from his best-selling book before an avid audience. He commands the room, his assured voice telling the tale that comprises the bulk of the film.

It’s a novel about a writer named Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), who is married to Dora (Zoe Saldana) and lives in New York. He’s been out of college for several years but still taps his father (J.K. Simmons) for money to live on while he writes what he is convinced will be the book that launches his career.

And then … it doesn’t. Crushed, he and his bride take a trip to Paris, where she finds him an antique briefcase, which he begins to use as he joins the corporate rat-race, working for a publisher, starting out in the mailroom. Until the day he discovers a hidden pocket in the old leather satchel, containing a typed manuscript.

Rory reads it – and is floored. It is compelling and commercial, so much so that he types the anonymous story into his own computer, prints it out and submits it to the top editor at his employer. They also see its value – and turn the novel into a publishing phenomenon, and Rory along with it.

But even as he is basking in the adulation, celebrity and sudden wealth that go with having a bestselling phenomenon, he is approached one day in Central Park by an elderly man (Jeremy Irons). As it turns out, the old man is the author of the hidden manuscript, having written it – about a World War II love affair with a girl he met as a soldier – and then lost it at the same time he lost her. Now what?

That’s the dilemma at the center of the tale, but it’s far from the only one. Even as Clay takes a break from his reading he is approached by another would-be writer and possible groupie (Olivia Wilde). She comes on to him, though he’s married, offering hints of possible pleasures to come after the reading, if he’s willing to pursue.

“The Words” is a set of stories built around a series of moral choices that catch the unsuspecting characters by surprise. The choices include consequences, both physical and metaphysical – and, at times, it’s difficult to decide which choice is the tougher one.

Klugman and Sternthal have a solid group of actors to work with, each of whom seems perfectly cast to maximize the moral quandaries. At the center of it is Cooper, boyishly ambitious, yet earnestly artistic, a guy who is dying to be taken seriously as a writer. Cooper captures the sense of guilt that lurks beneath the surface of each scene in which he reaps accolades – and the pit-of-the-stomach sick feeling when Irons crosses his path, catching him in the lie.

Irons, too, is note-perfect: He’s something worse than a blackmailer – someone who knows the truth and leaves it up to the liar to make the right decision. There is fire under the surface, but Irons only hints at the lifelong disappointment and pain lurking beneath his placid exterior.

And then there’s Quaid, who embodies the idea that great art is not necessarily produced by great human beings. Wilde has a seductively opportunistic quality that works for her role as well.

“The Words” is juicy, entertaining and thought-provoking. It manages to be literary and populist at the same time, in its story about the price of dreams and what any of us might be willing to do for love, success or both.

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