When it comes to movies about writers in crisis, I can, off the top of my head, list a few interesting ones: Barton Fink. The Hoax. Adaptation. Misery. Wonder Boys.
The Words would never make the cut. This is partly because writer-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal insist on shooting their movie like a lifestyle commercial sustained over 96 minutes.
It is also because the filmmakers are devoid of humour and employ a too-clever narrative device that tends to subvert its own momentum.
At the centre of this hokum is would-be novelist Rory Jansen (a dewy-eyed Bradley Cooper), a man who struggles to write his "artistic" novels and is met with a deafening chorus of disinterest from publishers.
Rory sticks with it. He already has a supportive, beautiful wife, Dora (Zoe Saldana). But he wants it all.
By the way, The Words is at its most infuriating in its depiction of this couple. There is no visual cliché left unturned when it comes to endless shots of these lovers snuggling, walking arm in arm, or playfully cooking dinner in their charmingly shabby New York loft. I kept waiting for an announcer to pop in, recommending a particular brand of condoms.
Anyway, Rory is just starting to come to terms with the fact that his writing ambitions may never pay off when he discovers a yellowed manuscript in the battered leather valise his wife purchased for him in a charmingly shabby second-hand store in Paris.
Rory is moved to tears by the novel. He transcribes it into his laptop just to glean some of the inspiration that went into its creation. And when Dora reads it under the mistaken notion Rory wrote it, she talks him into shopping the purloined story to a publisher. Before you know it, Rory is a newly minted literary wunderkind.
But then, an old man (Jeremy Irons) manages to track down Rory. It emerges that he found the novel achingly familiar. In fact, he contrives to talk with Rory on a Central Park bench about the story of the novel's creation, just after the Second World War, when a younger incarnation of the Old Man (Ben Barnes) wrote the book while in the throes of his own personal tragedy.
This might have worked as a simple literary melodrama. But the filmmakers double down on the cleverness, framing the story-within-a-story within yet another story of a celebrated novelist (Dennis Quaid) conducting a public reading, distracted by a knowing college student (Olivia Wilde) seemingly looking to be seduced.
The filmmakers are apparently old friends of Cooper's and they may have prevailed on him to star in their movie as a favour. But they didn't do him any favours. The actor fails to make his whining plagiarist character sympathetic. The whole movie, structurally unsound due to all those stories within stories, falls apart as a result.
Want a better way to spend 96 minutes of your life? Read a book.
Selected excerpts from reviews of The Words:
The Words leaves nothing to the imagination, smothering all these storylines in narration that spells out the actions we're seeing or emotions we could infer for ourselves.
-- Christy Lemire, The Associated Press
There's considerable gap between the film's ambition, which is to be a high-minded literary feature la Atonement or The Hours, and its actual level of execution.
-- Emanuel Levy, emanuellevy.com
A literary film that stands to work best for those who don't read.
-- Rob Nelson, Variety
By the time a grizzled Jeremy Irons saunters in, ready to dole out a comeuppance, perceptive viewers will have mentally flipped to the last page.
-- A.A. Dowd, Time Out New York
A clever entertainment that segues from thriller to drama to romance without breaking a sweat or offering much depth.
-- Tim Grierson, Screen International
As good-looking but shallow as its multiple leading men.
-- Mary F. Pols, Time magazine
The problem is with the three nested stories themselves, which...are treacly variations on what a not-too-inventive Nicholas Sparks enthusiast might imagine to be Hemingway-esque.
-- Glenn Kenny, MSN Movies
The Words is a movie about writing and books made by people who apparently rarely read.
-- Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald
A movie for people who buy their novels at Starbucks, made by people who write their novels at Starbucks.
-- Ray Greene, Boxoffice magazine
-- Compiled by Shane Minkin