So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food,
and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree
was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its f
ruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband,
who was with her, and he ate.
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that
I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.
Choose life so that you and your descendants may live…
Because of its ambiguous ending I decided to read what other reviewers were saying about this film before writing
my own review—sometimes it’s good to test one’s own perception against that of others. Most of the reviews,
the film being about a writer who plagiarizes the words of another,r were unfavorable and often overlooked what I thought were the film’s strengths, including that of ambiguity. Thus I would urge you to see this film for yourself and not let yourself be prejudiced by those who fault it because it falls far short of Citizen Kane.
Co-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal also are the writers of this story within a story within a story, and they largely leave it up to the audience to figure out their various interrelationships. One helpful thing that I did learn from Roger Ebert’s review is that Ernest Hemmingway, whose presence is felt very much in this movie, did actually lose almost all of his pre-1922 stories when his first wife left the valise containing them on a train.
The film begins at a literary event where famed novelist Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) is reading excerpts from his novel entitled the Words. It is the story of struggling New York writer Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), who, after three years of working on a novel, is told by a publisher that it is artistic but too “interior” to be publishable. He goes back to his live in girlfriend Dora (Zoe Saldana) and his typewriter, living off her wages and checks from his button-manufacturer father, who lectures him about giving up his dream of working full time at writing. Rejection letter after rejection letter arrives in the mail. Despite their lack of money Rory and Dora marry and honeymoon in Paris (where of course, they reverently visit the famed plaque in honor of Hemmingway). In an antique shop Cory admires a much-used old brief case. Dora does, too, and so buys it for him.
We are supposed to believe that a bulky folder containing a book manuscript hidden in the briefcase goes undetected until they return to New York, where one night Rory finds it. (Oh well, this goes along with such clichés that one must go to Paris to really become a writer, or, later on, that writing involves little dogged discipline but solely consists of luminous inspiration.)
Rory reads the single-spaced manuscript, recognizing its brilliance, mesmerized by its words so much that he decides to copy them into his computer. He says that he wants to “feel” the words. He changes nothing, not even a comma. Then Dora accidentally discovers it. Believing that it is his new work, she is ecstatic in her praise.
Rory is cool to this, but apparently buoyed by her admiration for what she says is unlike anything he has written before, still does not reveal that he is not the author. We can see on his face his struggle, with temptation arising when she urges him to show it to an agent. (the film’s version of “and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate” ?) Now Rory has followed his father’s advice to “get a job and be a man” by going to work as a lowly clerk at a literary agency. He hesitantly approaches one of the agents, leaving the manuscript with him. The next morning the now enthusiastic agent tells him how good it is and offers to become his agent. Soon Rory is being toasted as the best new writer in town, even Dad joining in a celebration at a posh nightspot.
Then comes the day when a character named (shades of Hemmingway again!) The Old Man (Jeremy Irons) plops down on a Central Park bench next to Rory, strikes up a conversation, and before Rory can get away, tells him his own story, that of a young American soldier in Paris near the end of World War Two who discovers through literature a bigger world than he had ever known. This soldier upon release from the Army marries the lovely French waitress whom he had met at a café, and settles into the life of the expatriate would-be writer.
Their life goes well, especially with the birth of a daughter. However when the child sickens and dies, grief consumes them both. The wife’s leads her into a deep depression, so deep that she decides to return to her mother in the country; his into a two week period of frenzied writing almost as if he were but the conduit of words from a mysterious cosmic source. The result is the heart-felt novel The Window Tears. Taking with him the in his briefcase the folder containing his typed manuscript, he sets off to regain his wife. Upon their return to Paris, she forgets the brief case as they disembark with their several pieces of luggage.He dashes back to the train station, but the briefcase is gone, and he goes into a funk that leads to their break-up.
Meanwhile in the novel Rory also goes into a funk as a result of the Old Man’s revelation. His future with Dora is threatened when he reveals to her the truth about his novel. There have followed two other novels, but neither measure up to his first. His guilt leads him to his agent and to the Old Man, now the owner of a floral green house upstate. What is he to do?
And also “meanwhile,” in the original story Clay has attracted a groupie, Columbia grad student Daniella (Olivia Wilde) who seductively wrangles an invitation back to his smart but empty apartment. Telling her that he and his wife have separated, the two talk further about his novel, the ending of which he had not revealed at the book reading. He finds her questions unsettling.
This is where the ambiguity comes in, the conversation being about the choices we make in life and the hard thing being having to live with them. Just what the stories reveal about Clay Hammond’s own life and circumstances surrounding his novel is left up to the viewer. Some reviewers mention a Woody Allen film that somehow I have missed, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, but the one that came to my mind as the end credits rolled is The Purple Rose of Cairo. Although it does not deal with a plagiarized manuscript, it does deal with an abused housewife’s making a life-changing choice, whether to choose fantasy and happiness, or reality and all its ugliness that require us to take charge of our lives. (The housewife is wonderfully played by Mia Farrow!)
Choosing, and as Clay says, “the hard thing is to live with them,” is as important in this film, and possibly better dealt with, as is the theme of guilt and facing up to it. Indeed, it could be argued that this latter is not really dealt with due to the plot device of what happens to The Old Man. Regardless of all of this, The Words is a film, admittedly a flawed one, that a church group (mainly an adult one, unless the youth are very mature—no not because of any sex but because of the subject) could have a good time exploring themes of temptation, choice, and guilt.
1. How did you feel at the end of this film? Confused? Pondering how the stories are interrelated? What do you think about being left to sort out things, rather than having everything neatly wrapped up at the end?
2. How would you describe Rory Jansen? How is he like many of us, seeking his dream and limited by his talent? How does his father’s words about “being a man” wound him? How have your friends or family helped or hindered you in seeking to fulfill your dreams?
3. What literary cliché’s do you see in the film?
4. Dora is depicted more as a supporting character, rather than a rounded person, but from what we do see, how would you describe her?
5. How could it be argued that circumstances are a major factor in tilting Rory toward doing what he did? That is, if Dory had never discovered the file on his computer, Rory might not have caved in to temptation? A contrary factor: why then did he not show her the folder as soon as he found it? If you were in a situation in which you could achieve your highest ambition, might you do as he did? After all, isn’t this a victimless “crime” ? Or, does that Shakespearean quote apply at all times, “To thine own self be true” ?
6. What do you think of his deciding to tell Dora and his agent the truth? Or of the agent’s dissuasive argument, “You can’t make things right.” Things are things” ? How is this a cop out, a “go with the flow” denial of assuming responsibility for one’s acts?
7. Were you surprised at the Old man’s response when Rory tracks him down? What has he apparently decided about life? And yet, do you think a real writer would have given in after the catastrophe of his first work being lost or destroyed?
8. How is Rory’s observation on the mark, “My tragedy is that I loved words more than the woman that inspired them” ? Martin Buber became famous for his teaching of “I/Thou” in which we are enjoined to love people and use things. He lamented that we use people and love things. How has Rory fallen into this?
9. I can’t tell from my notes which character at the end of the film said it, but what do you think of, “We all make choices in life. The hard thing is to live with them.” How has your life been affected by—a good choice; a bad one? If you have seen the dramatic Sophie’s Choice how has her choice when she was a young mother in a Nazi camp affected her life, even though it was not a voluntary choice?
10. What choice do you think is being spoken of in the conversation about choosing life over fantasy? If you haven’t seen it, watch Woody Allen’s fantasy The Purple Rose of Cairo in which Cecelia, played by Mia Farrow, is a frequent movie attendee in order to get away from her abusive husband. She is surprised, after viewing the fictional movie The Purple Rose of Cairo many times when the actor playing the hero steps out of the screen and courts her. At the end she is given the choice of going into the movie with him or of returning to reality.