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'The Words': All Jumbled

6/12/2014 Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
'The Words': All Jumbled © CBS Films 'The Words': All Jumbled

This is a rather odd movie. It uses a Russian doll story structure, something relatively rare in motion pictures, particularly in motion pictures that carry the relative star power of Bradley Cooper, Dennis Quaid, Zoe Saldana, Olivia Wilde, Jeremy Irons and others. In theory, this sort of ambition is entirely laudable. The problem is with the three nested stories themselves, which, when you come right down to it, are treacly variations on what a not-too-inventive Nicholas Sparks enthusiast might imagine to be Hemingway-esque.

"The Words" was written and directed by the team of Brian Klugman and Lee Sternhal, whose prior credit was the similarly strained and sentimental narrative for, ahem, "Tron: Legacy." It begins with celebrated Charismatic Manly Author Clay Hammond (not since Youngblood Hawke has a fictional Charismatic Manly Author been blessed with such a name) giving a reading from his latest work, titled, yup, "The Words."

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It's the story of Charismatic Weaselly Not-Yet-Author Rory Jansen, who believes so much in the writerly life that he's gotten his factory-running dad to bankroll it for a while ... but the words just don't come. Not until his Gorgeous Wife Who Believes In Him gets him this beautifully battered leather portfolio case in Paris. One day Rory's going through it and -- bam! -- the manuscript of something like The Great American Novel Set In World War II Paris pops out of it. Rory, so intoxicated by the power of its words, decides to input them into his computer, just to feel them going through his fingertips, and then one night Gorgeous Wife Who Believes In Him reads it, by accident, and tells him that this work finally makes him the Writer She Always Thought He Could be, so what choice does he have?

He shows the thing to A Crusty Agent who of course recognizes it as TGANSIWWIIP, there is publication, there is best-sellerdom, and there is ... an Old Man, who follows Rory to Central Park one day and proposes to tell Rory the story of a "young man who lost a book and the puissant kid who found it." And so we have the third story, shot in gauzy period soft-focus, of a young man with two loves: the love of a gorgeous young French woman and a love of words ...

And when Clay reaches a pause in his reading, he's approached by Gorgeous Inquisitive Grad Student Danielle, who, we are meant to infer, is going to help us wrap up the whole thing. This is all moderately intriguing as it goes, although much of it will be risible to anyone with actual experience in the publishing world of either today or of 30 years ago or of 40 years ago. There's something kind of endearingly quaint about the movie's conception of the novelist as an invariably dashing masculine type: Clay is played by reliably cocky/charming Dennis Quaid; Rory in rather irritating portrait-of-Jay-McInerney-as-a-pushy-puppy style by Bradley Cooper; the old victim of text theft by a seen-it-all-and-still-smoking Jeremy Irons; and his younger more idealistic self by dark-and-pouty Ben Barnes. Real gorgeousness is embodied by Olivia Wilde and Nora Arnezeder, and fictional gorgeousness (or is it?) by Zoe Saldana. Ron Rifkin and Zeljko Ivanek play two of the least cozy literary agents in the cinematic literature. Et cetera.

Stellar cast, as I mentioned, but they're laden with dialogue like "You can't erase the past no matter how much you want to," no kidding to that. Oy. "I know Miles Davis' 'Kind of Blue' is your favorite jazz recording," is what this movie thinks passes for some kind of revelation of character. I mean, I love "Kind of Blue," too, but can't someone get behind "Out to Lunch!" or "Giant Steps" just for variety's sake, you know? But really, the whole movie, handsomely mounted as it is, is not much more than a feature-length monument to sub-middlebrow commonplaces about "going deep" and other ways that life and art intersect.

Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at He lives in Brooklyn.

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