In a time when films about writers (think In the Mouth of Madness, Deconstructing Harry, Adaptation, American Splendor, Ruby Sparks…) have treaded some seriously self-referential waters, it’s a particularly tough grind to create narrative ingenuity in stories about creating works of fiction.
Tag-team writer/directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal give it a shot in The Words, a plagiarism melodrama (there’s a sub-genre to add to the collection) involving not one but four writers.
The film begins with Clayton (Dennis Quaid) performing a public reading of his novel The Words. It then cuts to the ‘reality’ inside the world he architectured, where struggling writer Ray (Bradley Cooper) finds a brilliant uncredited manuscript and passes it off as his own. Fame and fortune ensues.
One day Ray means a rambling old man (Jeremy Irons) in a park, who says the story is his. The film then segues into another ‘reality’, back to Paris at the end of WWII, and on we go…
If The Words’ screenplay itself had been plagiarised, pilfered from some penniless Hollywood hack with ratty clothes and no connections, the film would have some kind of weird meta redeeming factor. But it’s hard to imagine anybody wanting to take — or even put their name to — this pretentious and bafflingly structured attempt at multi-layered storytelling.
At a push the four tangent narrative scores a point for ambition, but Klugman and Sternthal’s multiple framing devices are awkward and clunky, ripping whatever slim pickings of interest existed in one and replacing it with next to zilch in the next.
The sense of narrative fracturing goes beyond disorientating to the point of squirm-in-your-seat agitation. The stories connect like lumps of rotting rump gaffer taped together, the sum of its parts a bundle of bungled and battered tangents that feel like half-thoughts and abandoned ideas.
Dennis Quaid, Bradley Cooper and Jeremy “rambling old codger” Irons try to make it work but bad writing gives them one hell of a hill to climb, and tumble down they do. In a film about a novelist who obtains a great piece of writing, the irony isn’t lost. Or appreciated.
The Words’ Australian theatrical release date: October 11, 2012.