Friday, September 7, 2012


Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal,” or so T. S. Eliot famously quipped. Maybe, but some writers have a hard time being so flippant on the subject of artistic theft (Eliot, it should be noted, was talking about inspiration and innovation, not true plagiarism). Even those of us who would never think of trying to pass off another’s work as our own on purpose—even if you didn’t get caught, there would be no pleasure in whatever success you attained—still live in terror of unconsciously appropriating a sentence, or a joke, or simply a turn of phrase from something we’ve read.

Thus the theme of The Words—the theft, by a writer, of someone else’s words—is troubling. It’s also potentially compelling, and while I’m still unable to tune into the star appeal that leading man Bradley Cooper clearly holds for many people, the movie, by the writing-directing team of Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, has a terrific supporting cast, and I went into it intrigued. The result, alas, is a good-looking movie that’s so banal and artificial, so enthralled by musty clichés about what an author’s life is supposed to look like, that the cautionary horror in the idea never takes hold.

Cooper plays Rory, an aspiring young writer living in Brooklyn who’s told by agents that his work is too subtle and “interior” to be published (really? I didn’t think there was any other kind of “literary” fiction). While they’re honeymooning in Paris—just like all struggling young writers get to do—Rory’s beautiful new wife (Zoe Saldana) buys him a beat-up leather portfolio in an antique shop.

One day while rummaging through it, he finds an old, yellowed typewritten manuscript of a novel tucked away in a hidden pocket—the novel, it turns out, he’d always wanted to write. He feels compelled to retype it, his wife reads it on his computer while he’s out and looks at him with new wonder, and before he knows it he’s handed it to an agent. It’s a smash, of course, wows the critics, wins awards, gets the book he actually did write sold. But pretty soon he’s confronted by an old man (Jeremy Irons) who lost a manuscript decades ago in Paris…

Though his lines aren’t any less forgettable and uninspired than anyone else’s, Irons gives them a muttering, ironic bite, like the sound of a damaged cello, that brings The Words whatever fun it has. The movie could have used a lot more of him. What really hurts, however, is the frame story through which it’s told: Yet another writer (Dennis Quaid) reading from his new novel The Words, and later telling the end to a sultry grad student (Olivia Wilde). This outer layer feels precious and evasive, and it leads the movie to an unsatisfying, anticlimactic finish—The Words ends not with a bang but with a whimper.

Um, I mean, not with a loud noise but with a soft, plaintive cry.

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