Sometimes, a movie gets such a bad rating, I almost ignore it. At the same time, it decimates expectations and allows for a more open viewing. This was the case with The Words directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, which I actually enjoyed. It’s currently at 22% on Rotten tomatoes and I think that rating is just ridiculously low. In some ways, it’s a retelling of a real-life Hemingway story. Hemingway had a suit case full of his manuscripts and all of his fiction that his wife lost at the train station. As he himself put it in a letter:
“I suppose you heard about the loss of my Juvenalia? I went up to Paris last week to see what was left and found that Hadley had made the job complete by including all carbons, duplicates, etc. All that remains of my complete works are three pencil drafts of a bum poem which was later scrapped, some correspondence between John McClure and me, and some journalistic carbons. You, naturally, would say, ‘Good’ etc. But don’t say it to me. I ain’t yet reached that mood.”
The question asked in the film is, if someone found that suitcase, then transcribed the manuscripts and published them as their own, what would happen? In this case, it’s not Hemingway, but another obscure writer who loses the case. Rory Jansen buys a suitcase at an antique store in Paris decades later. Inside is the manuscript of an incredible book that he decides to publish as his own. In the process, he becomes super famous and rides that fame into deals for his own books. Unfortunately, things fall apart when the original writer, the “Old Man,” (which ironically is also the same name as one of the only stories to survive that loss), pops back into his life and tells a very tragic tale of how he came to write the book (sadly, the old man never wrote a word after losing the manuscript).
Those two layers worked well, especially between Jeremy Irons and Bradley Cooper. I liked Cooper’s relationship with his wife played by Zoe Saldana too. What, unfortunately, took away from the whole movie was a third layer bookending the film. There’s another novel/biographical layer in a plot revolving around roles played by Dennis Quaid and Olivia Wilde that could have been easily been taken out and ended up being a distraction to the main narrative. It pains me to say that because I love both of them as actors/actresses. Plus, I understand the notion the filmmakers were getting at, questioning what is fiction, what is biography, what is truth, etc. I mean, is the plot of the Words about Dennis Quaid’s life? Did he just make it up? Is he still struggling with the choices he made? I think it could have been more effective had Bradley Cooper played that role as an older self looking back which would have had more emotional poignancy. Also, Cooper reverses courses way too quickly instead of allowing it to stew. Has he become more obsessed with fame than writing itself? He has to come to terms with his own limitations which drives him mad and would have made for a far more compelling theme. There’s another movie, The Hoax, which shows more of the stewing and adds to the tension of the film (a guy pretends to write the official biography of Howards Hughes). But in this case, aside from conflict/tension in the way the literary agent reacts to Cooper, it’s mostly absent.
On top of that, Zoe Saldana’s response was confusingly overwrought. Yes, I understand she’s angry, but shouldn’t she at least hear him out? He is totally drunk after all. For all she knew, he could have just been in a self-conflicted moment of doubt attributing his own work to an imaginary someone else, ha ha. You know writers and artists are all part of a crazy group, ha ha.
My wife for her part enjoyed seeing the early years full of rejections as that reflected my early years struggling as a writer, full of doubt, wondering impatiently about everything and anything. I mean, I’m still struggling! lol. There was a lot to enjoy in the film, especially the retelling of the Paris arc in the middle with the Jeremy Irons characters starting out in the sewers and finally pursuing his dream of being a writer. References/tributes to Hemingway abounded, even with the whole Krebs/return back home. I just wish the movie could have focused more on the choices they made affecting their lives rather than the plot within the plot within the plot. Jeremy Irons darkest confession/regret that he loves the writing more than his wife was devastating and I wanted to see how that changed Bradley Cooper’s character. Unfortunately, that part got skipped over, ha ha. There were enough questions to make it an enjoyable film revealing a glimpse into the writer life.
As for the 22%? That’s just crazy low. This is not a bad film. Not a great one, but it aspires to be something more and for that alone, is definitely worth watching.