I'm a sucker for a good romance but they're few and far between these days. I'm not talking about post-ironic, meta-whatevers such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – which, don't get me wrong, was metaphysically chewy, emotionally devastating, and hyper-unique. I'm referring to good, old-fashioned tales of love and life and the complications that result from the merging of two lost souls into one. (And it's always complicated, no?) The Words is a romance, all right, but like a bad lover, it only cares for itself. The script, by Brian Klugman (Jack's nephew) and Lee Sternthal is, intentionally or not, ripped from the same long-lost manuscript as the juicy/popular The Notebook.
This is also a film about a struggling writer, Rory Jansen (Cooper), which is almost always a stumbling block for actual, real-world writers. I can think of only a handful of films that revolve around writers that didn't make me want to put a loaded Smith Corona in my mouth and pull the carriage return lever: Sunset Blvd., Midnight in Paris, Throw Momma From the Train, and The Front chief among them. Those endless shots of overflowing ashtrays, crumpled balls of typing paper assaulting a circular, wire-mesh wastebasket, and red, red wine being consumed in great quantity tend to work on a working writer’s last nerve like a soldering iron on the gumline. Much to my dismay, The Words employs every single one of those cinematic shorthand cliches to tell a novel-length tale that would have been better suited to the short film form.
Rory, who lives with his impossibly thin and gorgeous girlfriend Dora (Star Trek's Saldana) in – where else? – New York City, is at something of a loss for words. Rory has two unsold novels under his belt when he fatefully discovers a manuscript of unknown provenance tucked away inside an old leather briefcase bought in Paris during the couple’s honeymoon. Already you can see where this is going, and despite Jeremy Irons’ creaky performance as the mysterious codger who originally penned that now-yellowing, 1940s-era love story, The Words is pretty creaky itself. Rory, unsurprisingly, claims authorial credit for the novel; fame and fortune follow, with potential ruination nipping at their heels.
As an examination of the writing process, this film offers nothing new – and to nonwriters, the process would be hideously boring to begin with – but it does have a pair of love stories at its core that, on their own, aren't half bad. Still, The Words feels like a weaker Oprah Book Club selection that's been gussied up – and edited to the bone – for big-screen consumption. It's not atrocious (cinematographer Antonio Calvache gets plenty of mileage from the constant flashbacks to post-Occupation Paris), but it borders on it, thanks to Dennis Quaid's annoying narration and his even more irritating portrait of the self-loathing writer whose presence bookends the two main storylines. To paraphrase Motorhead: "What's words worth?" Not much. Unless of course you owe someone a date-night treacle bomb.