I’m OK with a film telling a story within a story. You know, one of those movies where a narrator in the present day reads from a book, and we see his story play out, with occasional revisits to the narrator and whatever they have going on in their life. The Princess Bride totally rocked that format. Again, I’m OK with this.
But, when you go to a story within a story within a story … well, you start to lose me.
That actually happens in The Words, a film boasting a decent cast and at least one good storyline out of the many it throws at you. Dennis Quaid, in story number one, is a big author at a conference doing a reading of his book. Story number two would be the depiction of the book itself, which is about a writer (Bradley Cooper) who finds a crumpled novel in an antique briefcase and decides to publish it as his own.
Story number three features Jeremy Irons as the man who wrote the crumpled novel. He makes himself known to the plagiarist, and we get a little of his present day story. Then, the Jeremy Irons character tells his freaking backstory, and we find ourselves in a flashback inside a narrative being told by somebody in the present day.
Confusing … perhaps. Unnecessary … I think so. Boring … definitely.
The biggest problem here is that you just don’t give a shit about the “real” character, Dennis Quaid’s obviously disenchanted author. As the film plays out, it tries to be clever regarding his character, giving him more purpose, but his existence within this film is unneeded.
The more interesting story is the Cooper and Irons one. I’m not saying their tale has the makings of a great movie, but their tale alone makes for a more coherent and streamlined one. Every time the movie popped back to the Quaid character I lost interest. And every time the Irons character took me into a flashback, I found it to be one story level too many.
Cooper tries dutifully to make something of this mess. His character calls for him to be insecure, guilt-ridden and cowardly. He’s effectively subtle at times, but comically bad at others. He has one drunken scene with his screen wife (Zoe Saldana) that earns an instant place in his “When I Totally Sucked!” reel. Honestly, I enjoyed him more as the dreadlocked criminal in the recent Hit and Run
The film does perk up when Irons shows up on a park bench and ridicules the young author for stealing his story. I was hoping there would be more interaction between Cooper and Irons, but this is where directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal screw up. (The directors also co-wrote the convoluted screenplay.) Instead of focusing on Irons and Cooper, they bring the story back to a younger version of Irons in post-war Paris, and details about how he lost his book.
Until the moment when these Irons flashbacks started, I was hanging in with the film and sort of enjoying it. But that flashback took me out of the movie, and it was followed by another lengthy visitation with the Quaid character. I started thinking about stuff like backgammon and how I haven’t really played it in a very long time. Then I remembered how I hated playing backgammon and preferred chess. Then I reminded myself that I was supposed to be concentrating on this overstuffed movie.
Of the women in the movie, Saldana fares best with a typically good performance in a movie beneath her station. Olivia Wilde is a dud as the grad student basically stalking Quaid’s author. The writing for her character is bloody awful.
If you take out Quaid, the drunken Cooper scene, the whole Irons flashback and the stupid Wilde character you still wouldn’t have much to watch with The Words. It would be about half an hour long, and a trite 30 minutes at that, but at least it would be over fast, and Quaid would be freed up to make that Breaking Away sequel I’ve always wanted him to do.