'The Words': A Cinematic Run-On Sentence

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The new Bradley Cooper vehicle is so ill-conceived that it defies conventional criticism.

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CBS Films

The movie begins with Dennis Quaid (heavy-faced, a bit melancholy) as a famous writer, reading to a rapt, upscale Manhattan audience from his new novel, a novel about a younger writer, played by Bradley Cooper, who marries his college sweetheart (Zoe Saldana) but struggles to find his way into print—his fiction is described as being too "interior," which is not a sin of which Cooper seems likely to be guilty, in this film or any other—until one day he discovers, implausibly tucked into the seam of an ancient second-hand briefcase, a thick yellowed postwar manuscript, brilliant and unpublished, which he retypes, word for word, and submits under his own name, and which makes him an instant literary sensation, feted with awards and further book contracts, until one day, another day, he is approached in the park by an old man, played by Jeremy Irons (decked out in exhausted, exhausting stubble), who is

We're left to ponder whether this lazy literary mindfuck might have worked better on the printed page, only to conclude that, no, the prose is too dreadful.

the true author of the novel that Cooper has stolen, and who tells him the tragic story of his own youth in 1940s Paris, and Cooper listens even though he of course knows most of it—having published under his own name the novel that was based on it—and we listen, too, perhaps because after being subjected to an excruciating voiceover by Quaid telling Cooper's story ("He loved her. He loved New York. But at night, when the city was finally quiet, he wrote"), it is a relief to be subjected to a marginally less painful voiceover by Irons telling his own story ("It's not over yet. This is where it really gets interesting"), and perhaps also because we're hoping that by now we've spiraled deep enough into the wormhole, penetrating the layers of textual artifice, that we might finally encounter some genuine intrigue—a murder perhaps? a romantic betrayal?—but, no, Irons offers only the tale of a lost love and a lost manuscript, a story-within-a-story-within-a-story so slight and inconsequential, like the tiniest of a set of Russian nesting dolls, that we may be forgiven for letting our minds wander toward bedtime and tomorrow's errands, at least until Irons finishes telling Cooper the story, at which point Quaid concludes his reading from the novel in which we've half-forgotten that all the rest is embedded and tells his upscale Manhattan audience "If you want to know the rest of the story, you'll just have to buy the book," which may be the worst advertisement ever, but at least the audience at the book reading gets to leave now, whereas those of us in the theater have to continue watching as Quaid lures a pretty Columbia grad student (Olivia Wilde) back to his airless luxury apartment and she begs him—damn you, pretty grad student!—to continue the story, and he does, recounting how after Cooper hears Irons's tale he is ashamed, and cries to his wife over his literary theft, and seeks out Irons in order to make amends, only to learn that Irons has still more personal history to impart, along with the bitter lesson that "We all make our choices in life, the hard thing to do is live with them," a lesson that is presumably supposed to resonate with those of us who've struggled over questions of whether to steal someone else's writing or dissolve our marriages over a lost manuscript, but which also seems like an indictment of anyone who made the choice to watch this particular film, though at least it's a moviegoing experience that is by now mostly over, as Irons is finished telling his story to Cooper which means Quaid is finished telling it to the pretty grad student, and there we are in Quaid's airless apartment and the big, inevitable meta-point about truth and fiction is barreling toward us with all the subtlety of a locomotive, but we might as well be tied to the tracks for all we can do about it, so we're left to ponder whether maybe this lazy literary mindfuck, written and directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, might have worked better on the printed page than on the big screen, only to conclude that, no, the prose is too dreadful—Italo Calvino minus the Italo Calvino, an incontinent Borges, Philip K. Dick emasculated—and that in any case they didn't choose to make it a novel, they chose to make it a movie, and they have to live with that, and so do we, but not for much longer, because mercifully (and this is the kindest thing I have to say) it is about to end.

Oh, and the movie is titled The Words. Of course.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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