In the best possible sense, The Words may not be about what we think it’s about. It could very well be the story of a man who steals another man’s manuscript and claims it as his own. On the other hand, it could also be about an entirely different man trying to process his grief and torment through his writing. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that it’s about the latter. What is he grief-stricken and tormented about? Did he in fact secretly plagiarize someone else’s work, or is he trying to make sense of an issue using plagiarism as a metaphor – or, at the very least, as a narrative device that provides a convenient explanation for the reader? Regardless of our assumptions, this movie doesn’t provide answers to most of our questions. I suspect this is why it has received such negative reviews and why certain audiences will undoubtedly find it confusing and manipulative.
There are several narrative layers to this film, all of which are intended to be stylistically different from each other. One, a cautionary tale of the choices we make, focuses on Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), whose aspirations to be a full-time writer are initially met only with rejection letters. Knowing he can no longer accept monthly checks from his father (J.K. Simmons), he lands a job at a publishing house as a mail clerk. It provides him with the financial stability he needs to marry his girlfriend, Dora (Zoe Saldana), and take her on a honeymoon to Paris, although it also forces him to face the possibility that he isn’t the writer he thought he was. While in Paris, Dora buys an old briefcase from an antique store; upon returning to New York, Rory discovers a manuscript tucked away in one of the pockets. He reads it and, in attempting to capture the feeling of writing those powerful words, transcribes the entire thing onto his laptop.
Plagiarizing someone else’s work was never Rory’s intention. At least, it wasn’t until Dora read the retyped copy on his laptop; her reaction was so positive and emotional that Rory couldn’t bring himself to admit that the story wasn’t his. At her insistence, he passes the reprinted manuscript to a publisher (Zeljko Ivanek), who of course loves it and immediately offers Rory a contract. He could have prevented this from going any farther, but in a moment of weakness that obviously stemmed from his newfound sense of acceptance, he accepts it. The book is published and is an immediate hit; Rory becomes a literary celebrity and is even honored with a prestigious writing award. In due time, he’s approached by an unnamed frail old man from England (Jeremy Irons), who reveals himself to be the true author of the manuscript.
We now transition to the second narrative layer – a romantic melodrama photographed in nostalgically muted shades. Rather than simply come forward and accuse Rory of plagiarism, the Man instead narrates his own back story, detailing the events, traumas, and emotional states that led to the creation of the manuscript. We flash back to the end of World War II, when the Man, then only eighteen years old (Ben Barnes), was stationed in Paris. After being exposed to literature for the first time by a fellow soldier, he falls in love with a young French waitress named Celia (Nora Arnezeder) and marries her not long after being discharged from the Army. Their subsequent life, which I will refrain from describing in detail, inspires the Man to try his hand at writing. The resulting manuscript is placed in a briefcase, which is lost due to an honest oversight.
A third layer, which can best be described as a mystery, ingenuously calls the authenticity of the first to layers into question. We meet a successful author named Clayton Hammond (Dennis Quaid); he attends a public reading of his novel, The Words, in which Rory, Dora, and the Man are all characters. During breaks, he’s approached by a young grad student named Danielle (Olivia Wilde), who, despite being overly flirty, is genuinely interested in interviewing him for a dissertation paper she’s writing. She purports to know a great deal about his personal and professional life, but when it comes to the ending of his novel, she only has so much to go on. As she pressures Clayton for more information, we in the audience are actively considering the possibilities. Perhaps Rory is a fictionalized version of Clayton, and he wrote his book in an effort to overcome the guilt of getting away with plagiarizing. Or perhaps nothing was plagiarized, and there was no Man, and the whole story is really just Clayton’s way of dealing with another painful choice he made.
Perhaps. Perhaps not. The film’s ambiguity is unlikely to be appreciated by everyone. To a point, this is understandable; the final shots raise more questions than they answer and force us to think back on and second-guess everything leading up to them. But you have to ask yourself: Are all movies required to spell everything out for us? Sometimes, isn’t it much more satisfying to apply our own meaning based on the evidence provided? The only indisputable aspect of The Words is its theme, namely that in life we make choices and we must live with them regardless of whether they’re good or bad. With this in mind, being told what choices were made by Clayton – or Rory, or the Old Man, for that matter – would be unnecessary and even a little anticlimactic. There will be initial reluctance, but eventually, this film deserves to be structurally, emotionally, and thematically analyzed.
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