“The Words” is a story within a story within a story, and only one of these offers anything that resembles a conclusion. Given writer/directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal’s apparent love of plot–what other Hollywood filmmakers have recently implemented a three-layered structure?–the movie’s abrupt, mildly confusing ending seems auspicious at first. But upon reflection, it makes perfect sense. Klugman and Sternthal never engage the viewer through the characters and their emotions; instead, they do so by obscuring the way that the dots of the three stories line up with one another, forcing the viewer to pay attention for clues to evade the directors’ central conceit. Thus, to ultimately give away how exactly those dots line up would be to rob the movie of its only significance. The vague final scenes are Klugman and Sternthal’s poor man’s way of keeping the viewer thinking after they leave the theater when there is nothing in their movie actually worth thinking about.
Klugman and Sternthal’s use of three layers of story rather than two serves as their own admission that the stories themselves aren’t any good. In the outermost layer, Dennis Quaid plays a novelist reading his latest work at a reception. The next layer is an enactment of that work, which is about a wannabe novelist (Bradley Cooper) who finds a lost masterpiece in an antique store-bought briefcase, which he types up and publishes as his own. The innermost layer is the story of how that briefcase was lost, back in 1950s France. All three layers involve tragic romances, naturally. This structure stands an open recognition of the material’s weakness because, by framing the two inner layers as fiction written by Quaid’s character, the filmmakers actively remind the audience that they are made up, thereby minimizing the potential for emotional impact. This is likely because the duo realized there was little poignancy to the material in the first place. Certainly, the audience externally recognize that everything in a fictional movie is made up, but creating the illusion of reality is a courtesy that Klugman and Sternthal undoubtedly would have allowed the inner layers of “The Words” had they been more confident in them.
But to reflect on “The Words” is a somewhat revisionist process, because before the movie’s non-conclusions come along, Klugman and Sternthal are reasonably effective in distracting the viewer from the emotional inertness of their three narratives. Only hardened cynics won’t fall for the movie’s gimmick-laden storytelling. The writer/directors create genuine intrigue into how the aforementioned dots line up through their competent execution of a classical mystery style, which perfectly pivots from layer to layer without ever concealing too much at once. “The Words” is the cinematic equivalent of a paperback page-turner: It’s cheap, but also stylistically successful enough to be occupying. (As an added bonus, the filmic medium allows for enveloping cinematography, which takes on a distinct look for each of the three layers and is especially gorgeous during the grain-heavy 20th Century segments.) “The Words” doesn’t stand up to even the slightest amount of scrutiny and cops out in the end, but it’s watchable, which is more than can be said for much of its box office competition.