“The Words”: Don’t see it. Write It! (film commentary with lots of spoilers)

Photo & Commentary by Janet Grace Riehl

Fact Sheet: The recently released movie “The Words” is written and directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal . It stars Bradley Cooper (Rory Jansen—The Great Pretender), Olivia Wilde (Daniella—Beautiful Stalker), Zoe Saldana (Dora Jansen—Rory’s Adoring Wife), Jeremy Irons (The Old Man), Ben Barnes (The Young Man in Paris), Nora Arnezeder (Celia—Young Man’s Wife), and Dennis Quaid (Clay Hammond—Famous Author).


“The Words” is a romantic story about a plagiarist (The Great Pretender) who suffers for his Deal with the Devil. “The Words will leave you speechless!” touts one review. I hope not. My advice? Don’t see “The Words.” Yours are better, trust me. Now you’ve been alerted, let’s get onto the spoilers.

Can you steal another person’s life? No. Can you steal another person’s story?  Not really. Because once you do, that person’s story becomes part of your story. A key repeated line in “The Words” is “There is life, and there is fiction. You have to choose.” What if you choose a fictional life, rather than a life in fiction? Then that fiction becomes your life.

“The Words” is structured as a story within a story within a story. And, if we count a missed plot opportunity and the effect on us as the audience, then we’d have two more stories within a story. Oh! And if we count the movie script itself written by Brian Klugman and Lee Sterntha, then we’d have yet another story.  Are you dizzy yet? My story of all these stories goes like this.

FRAME STORY: A craggy, sexy, celebrated Famous Author (Clay Hammond) reads from his best-seller to an adoring audience. Ah, fame. How sweet it is. Maybe. At the other end of the frame we begin to wonder if the story he presumably wrote really is his—either the manuscript or his life story.

His Beautiful Stalker (Daniella) becomes the foil for The Famous Author to tell the stories behind the best-selling story he’s reading to his adoring fans in the auditorium. There’s an undercurrent of sexual tension in their scenes that leaves us literally anti-climactic at the end.

NESTED STORY #1: The Great Pretender—the plagiarist-to-be (Rory)—writes and writes and writes. But, in spite of busting a gut, the support of a generous father, and an adoring wife he can’t break into the New York publishing establishment. If only he could’ve brought his novel out as an eBook. Then, we could stop the misery right here. But no!

The Great Pretender and his Adoring Wife (Dora) honeymoon in Paris. His wife buys him an antique briefcase. The fable deepens. Back home Rory sits bereft in front of his laptop with no words flowing. When he looks inside the briefcase, he finds a secret pocket that holds the manuscript. It’s not just any manuscript, mind you, but a brilliant one. He is entranced; reads it all the way through; and as if pulled by fate, begins to type it start to finish without changing a word. It’s the kind of books he wishes were in him, but it’s just not. Eventually he succumbs to his Deal with the Devil and passes the manuscript off as his own. One of the most poignant touches for me is the real author’s fingerprint (inked from the typewriter ribbon) on one of the pages. Here comes…

NESTED STORY #2: The manuscript tells about life in Paris after World War II. The Young Man and a French woman (Celia) fall deeply in love and marry. That love found among the war wreckage is only to be wrecked by the death of their child, and—just as they are ready to kiss and make up—the loss of the manuscript. Of course the lost manuscript is the same one that The Great Pretender finds in the ancient briefcase in nested story #1. And, possibly, it is the same manuscript which The Famous Author reads from in the auditorium in the opening frame story.

After he loses his wife—the love of his life—The Young Man sits down in a frenzy of typing to tell his story of love’s labor lost. This is the real (fictional) author of the fictional story—which, in fact is the real (fictional) story of The Old Man’s life. Here comes the…

INTERSECTION OF NESTED STORIES 1 & 2: The Young Man has become the Old Man. He follows The Great Pretender into Central Park, sits down on a bench opposite, and engages him in small talk. The conversation becomes big talk as The Old Man confronts The Great Pretender. Rory’s  sensitive soul is plunged into a living hell. Our handsome young fictional author of a fictional story told by a real (fictional)  person is now faced with the hellish decision: Is there a way to make this right?

He begins with a trail of revelations which are about to wreck his personal and professional relationships: his wife and his publisher. There’s a lot at stake here not only for Rory, but for every person who was an unwitting accomplice in the lie (i.e. fiction). Will survival triumph over scruples? Stay tuned to “As the Story Turns.”

The Great Pretender travels north to visit the small town where The Old Man lives, and owns a nursery. He nurtures plants. Nice touch. Can Rory buy him off? The Old Man thrusts the proffered money back into the Great Pretender’s hands, and adds the plant he’s been pruning into the bargain of no bargain. The Old Man urges The Great Pretender to take on the burden of his choice. There’s no way to make it right. Just get on with it. So Rory does the only sensible thing. He enjoys the spoiled spoils of success as best he can.

Cut to The Great Pretender reading and signing the book he didn’t write of a life he never lived. Conveniently, The Old Man dies a few weeks later. The Great Pretender consigns the original manuscript—complete with the author’s thumbprint—into The Old Man’s grave on top of his coffin. Their secret, literally, goes to the grave. Yet, it’s clear that there’s never going to be a way to clean this up. The Great Pretender dug his own grave. He buried himself alive through his Deal with the Devil. Now, back to…

THE FRAME STORY. By this time the randy and tortured Famous Author has enticed The Beautiful Stalker to his spacious and empty flat with a view. Or, has she cleverly inserted herself in order to mine for the truth of his secret? She wants him to admit what she intuits: that the story he’s just read (nested story #2) isn’t his.

Here’s a missed plot point that would have made a third nested story. The Beautiful Stalker sits at The Famous Author’s desk opening drawers and idly  thumbing through papers. I thought for sure that she’d steal the manuscript for his second book. But no. The soap opera now shifts to…

Wine on the balcony. Passionate kisses and the sex that can’t be claimed because of The Famous Author’s tortured soul.  But, the truth? The postmodernist ending pretends not to know. We the audience must decide. Is the purveyor of this fiction we are consuming a reliable narrator? Hell, no.

For memoir writers this convoluted story depicts the ongoing convoluted angst-ridden discussion that pervades our genre: Who owns the story? Only we can decide. See “The Words”? Nope. Write your own.


See more of Janet’s work at Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century (www.riehlife.com)

6 responses to ““The Words”: Don’t see it. Write It! (film commentary with lots of spoilers)

  1. Richard Margolies play “Collected Works” is a terrific antidote to this movie.

  2. Beth, Thanks for this suggestion! Is it available in print? –Janet

  3. Janet:

    You hit the mark–as usual.

    Self-deception is among our worst enemies.

  4. Gisselle dupont

    The stalker girl finds a card in the book. What is it? Does it mean anything? Why the famous writter doesnt have sex with her? Does he feel guilty because the fame doesnt belong to him? Perhaps they are fake tracks to make us think the end is more intelligent than it really is.

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