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A Movie About Books Made By People Who Don't Read Them. The Words, Reviewed.

Illustration for article titled A Movie About Books Made By People Who Dont Read Them. emThe Words/em, Reviewed.

1. When my first book was published—and "published" is honestly being kind; it's probably more accurate to say it was "repeatedly photocopied"—perhaps the most common question family members asked me: So, are you going to go on Oprah? They were joking (I think), but something about their question was depressing. What you are saying, essentially, is that the only real everyday experience you have with books is through Oprah's Book Club. I mean this less as a criticism of them, or of Oprah; it spoke to the fading relevance of books in the world that a regular person came across them primarily as some sort of retail therapy from a feel-good television host. Sure, whatever gets people to read is great, but Oprah's reverence to her authors—"You wrote a book! That's amazing!"—helped put a certain "honorable" haze on books that I'm not sure is helpful. Reading is now thought of as something that's good for you. And no one ever wants to do something that's good for them. Books are supposed to be fun.


2. I thought a lot about Oprah's Book Club during The Words, which is a movie about books that appears to have been made by people who have read only three or four books in their lives. It's the sort of movie where every author is either a starving broke artist who lives in a rundown (but lovable!) Brooklyn apartment or a superstar billionaire playboy who is beloved by the masses and is constantly giving speeches after accepting awards. It is the author as wish-fulfillment, not interested in what books are made of, how they're constructed, the beauty of language. It is a movie about books by people who always thought they had a book in them but never had any interest in trying to write one. It is a movie about books by people who only know them from Oprah.


3. The only reason this movie is about books—and not about scientists, or soldiers, or nerfherders—is because books are easier to steal. It tells the tale of Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), a struggling author who discovers a beaten-up old manuscript in a Parisian secondhand store and realizes it's beautiful. He retypes it, slaps his name on it, sells it, and becomes a literary sensation. The problem is when the book's actual author, an ancient gentleman played by Jeremy Irons, confronts him with his deceit. Of course, as it turns out, each of these people is just a character in a novel of his or her own, written by a charming, Franzen-esque letch (Dennis Quaid) who's trying to get an admirer (Olivia Wilde) into bed with him. But does he have secrets of his own?

4. This is all pretty limp sauce, really. It sounds like some sort of dark look into the soul of deceit, a plumbing of what it means to live a lie, but the movie never really deals with Jansen's deception. Irons isn't even all that angry about it; he just wants to tell the young pup his own story, of when he was a soldier in love. (As far as punishments for plagiarism go, that's a pretty light one, even though the story is pretty tedious.) Jansen's relationship with his wife is curiously unexplored—Zoe Saldana's character in Avatar has more depth and recognizable dimensions—and the movie never really decides if Jansen's thievery is supposed to be the center of the story or not. And the framing device of Quaid the novelist is particularly ill-advised. If he's the storyteller, and the rest of the movie is just full of his creations, why are we supposed to care about any of this? And why is he so boring? And why doesn't he just stop blathering on about his book and sleep with Olivia Wilde already?

5. It doesn't help that when Quaid reads from his book, the prose is turgid, empty and obvious. The movie is just uncurious about its books or their writers; it wants to be some inspiring through-the-generations tale, but each tale is dull and would never make it past rough-draft form in any page-turner bestseller, let alone anything "literary." It's strange to write about the premise of the film—book-stealing—and realize that the movie never really does anything with it. (It doesn't help that Cooper, while charming, keeps trying to play his Jansen like a hero. He needs to be a slime, and Cooper, for whatever reason, isn't willing to go there.) This is a movie about a bad author who steals the book of a good author, and I'm pretty certain that The Words, if pressed, wouldn't be able to tell the difference.

Grade: C-.

Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.

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