In 1922, when Ernest Hemingway was an aspiring, but as yet unpublished, writer still earning his living as a newspaper correspondent based in Paris, his then-wife, Hadley, inadvertently left a suitcase containing nearly all of his early manuscripts and carbon copies on a train at the Gare de Lyon station. Neither the manuscripts nor the suitcase were ever seen again.
That doleful bit of literary history (for details, click here) was the obvious inspirational starting point for “The Words,” an ambitious but ultimately unsatisfying drama about writerly aspirations.
The movie has a tricky, three-part narrative that may, as the British say, be too clever by half. Its trio of main characters, whose stories overlap in a fashion, are all novelists. Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) is a fledgling writer in New York whose ambition and hunger for recognition outstrip his talent. Jeremy Irons and Ben Barnes play the older and younger incarnations of a writer — he’s not Hemingway, but this is where the lost manuscript story comes into play — whose work both inspires and tempts Rory. And Dennis Quaid portrays Clay Hammond, a bestselling novelist who, in a public reading from his latest book, tells Rory’s story.
Got that? The movie keeps switching between these three men and their lives, drawing parallels and spotlighting their differences. Each of the three is confronted by the question of whether to choose the love of words over actual love. As Clay portentously intones, underlining for the slower students among us the movie’s key theme, “You have to choose between life and fiction. The two are very close, but they never actually touch.”
The most compelling story of the three is that of Rory. In the role, Cooper, looking baby-faced and a little lost, convincingly builds a sharp portrait of a man who comes to understand too late the high price to be paid for his moral shortcomings.
Irons lays on the frail-old-man shtick somewhat thickly, while Quaid mostly postures, playing more of a caricature of a self-loving famous writer than actually portraying a character. Zoe Saldana, Nora Arnezeder and Olivia Wilde turn up in supporting roles, each a love interest in one man’s life. (All three are attractive enough to encourage any aspiring male writers in the audience that literary success is indeed the pathway to landing babes.)
“The Words,” the first film by co-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal (the duo also co-wrote the screenplay, having earlier shared a story credit on “Tron: Legacy”), raises worthy questions about the thin line separating truth and fiction and whether novelists truly make up their stories or just borrow from their own lives and at what cost. But like a modern novel that is more about form, about how a story is told, rather than the story itself, the movie’s complicated structure sometimes gets in the way of just telling a tale that, as Hemingway might have put it, is honest and simple and true.