We're faced with moral decisions almost daily. How we respond to these choices is a reflection of who we are.
And so we have the mirror-image reflection shots in The Words, a new drama about a struggling writer who makes a poor decision to take credit for someone else's work.
The duality of a character via mirror is an easy cinematic device/metaphor for first-time directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, who co-wrote the script. It's also an unintended reflection of their film as not particularly subtle or original.
Bradley Cooper is Rory Jansen, a good writer who lacks the necessary talent to be great. Yet he works diligently to be successful -- late-night writing sessions, submissions of his manuscript to publishers -- while his live-in girlfriend Dora (Zoe Saldana) offers encouragement and his father (J.K. Simmons) provides temporary financial support.
Rory and Dora are in love, they marry, and he takes a low-level job at a publishing house to make industry contacts, all while writing his novel in hopes of that one big break. The opportunity comes not by his hand, but in the form of a typed manuscript lost in an old leather suitcase Dora bought for him while they honeymooned in Paris. Rory discovers the crisp yellowed papers, and is stunned by how good the unpublished novel is -- so good he can't help but type it into his computer, word for word.
Dora, of course, reads the story and, believing it to be Rory's work, begs him to show it to his boss at the publishing house. He does and the book is published. It's lauded by critics and devoured by readers, and Rory becomes a literary sensation.
Then "The Old Man" (Jeremy Irons) appears and confronts Rory with the truth: he didn't write the book, The Old Man did.
Given the publishing world's recent troubles with faked biographies and plagiarized material, Klugman and Sternthal could have used The Words as thoughtful commentary on what drives authors to such low levels of personal integrity. Alas, a dream-within-a-dream narrative device distracts from any moral purpose of their film.
That's because Rory is himself a literary creation, the work of author Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid), whose book The Words has made him a celebrity. The narrative gimmick is that Hammond reads excerpts from his book to an audience, and his words dissolve into Rory's story, which is divided into three chapters. At the conclusion of each chapter, the camera cuts to Clay fan/borderline stalker Daniella (Olivia Wilde). An aspiring writer herself, Daniella flirts with Clay, and he invites her back to his apartment, where she begs him to share with her whatever became of Rory after his encounter with The Old Man. As Clay fills in the gaps of Rory's post-celebrity life, Daniella takes to psychoanalyzing the author and his literary creation, wondering where truth and fiction are separate, if at all.
The movie opts to leave the answer for debate, though there's no reason to care.
Clay is a sparse room of a character, with plenty of empty space and hardly anything to fill it. With no audience attachment to the character, his appearances are unwarranted and out of place.
Rory at least is likable, yet we never approve of his actions, so there's scarce sympathy from us when he's caught. Best known as a smart-aleck ladies man, Cooper has the dramatic chops for the role, but his efforts are wasted on a character we don't fully invest in because we know he's not real, even by movie standards. Watching Rory skip through the chapters is like watching someone else's dream: It keeps us emotionally at arm's length.
It's no surprise that Oscar winner Irons, in a role that feels larger than the actual screen time, offers the most engaging moments in the film, as he delivers The Old Man's biography of heartache and regret in sullen tones that haunt the screen even when he's not on it.
Written and directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal. A CBS Films release, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and levis Commons. Rated PG-13 for vulgar language and adult themes. Running time: 96 minutes.
Critic's rating: **
Rory ........... Bradley Cooper
Dora ........... Zoe Saldana
Clay ........... Dennis Quaid
Old Man ........... Jeremy Irons
Daniella ......... Olivia Wilde
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.