Unintentional Brilliance: How is ‘The Words’ Like ‘Raising Arizona’?

By  · Published on September 8th, 2012

Note: This post discusses plot details of The Words but nothing that really requires you to have seen the film, which doesn’t necessarily have spoiler-able elements anyway.

There are no tonal similarities between The Words and a Coen brothers film. And most of the laughter heard at the screening I attended was a kind of awkward response to some very cheesy dialogue. But I couldn’t help thinking of Raising Arizona while watching the new drama, which was written and directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal.

The duo previously contributed to what became the finished script for Tron: Legacy, and with this their only second produced work, it’s already obvious they’re very interested in ideas pertaining to creators and their creations. In fact, just as with the Tron sequel, we can forget about any kind of emotional engagement with The Words. It’s a film concerned with players rather than people, and the objective is to get us thinking about certain concepts rather than caring what happens to the characters.

One idea consistently addressed through metaphoric association is this: creative works are like children, and plagiarism is therefore like kidnapping.

Three stories are told in The Words, each revolving around an original piece of semi-autobiographical fiction authored by a young man (Ben Barnes) in the 1950s. He plowed through its writing following the death of his child and at first the manuscript was a substitute that brought him and his grieving wife (Nora Arnezeder) back together. Then she loses the book, which is thereby equated with the lost daughter.

Decades later, central protagonist Rory (Bradley Cooper) is trying to make it as a novelist, but none of his literary seeds are amounting to anything. Just to emphasize the symbolism, a scene in which he is struggling to finish a book ends with him instead making love to his wife (Zoe Saldana). The couple must not be having any better luck getting pregnant than Rory is having getting published, though though plans for literal children are never discussed on screen.

However, when Rory finds the young man’s lost pages hidden in a bag bought at an antique shop, the creative work is again directly associated with the procreative act. Without telling his wife of the found masterpiece, he transfers every typewritten word into his computer. She finds it while he’s at work and thinks it’s his. When he comes home and wonders why she’s in a celebratory mood, he asks her if they’re pregnant. Artistically, they seem to be.

Of course, that “kid” isn’t really his. The act of passing the novel off as his own reminded me of the way a kidnapped baby is passed off by a couple as their own in Raising Arizona, but I have to admit the plot parallels are few and rather weak. The more appropriate comparison might be to an Argentine drama based on the true stories of government-kidnapped children adopted and raised unknowingly by families and friends of the military junta (see Oscar winner The Official Story, for example). This might also sound like the plot of the recent movie Abduction.

When confronted by the real “father” of the novel, the now old man (Jeremy Irons) simply wishes to provide a backstory for the novel, as if he’s offering an ancestral background. But he knows he can’t really take the celebrated book back without things being messy. It’d be like trying to reclaim a biological child who has grown up with adoptive parents and too rooted in that new family.

How this all figures into the third level of the movie, the story of a famed author (Dennis Quaid) who has just written a book telling those two other intertwined tales, is less clear. That novel must also represent a child for this whole theme to be consistent. But the easiest association to be found between words and reproduction is when he is flirting with a fan (Olivia Wilde) and is called out for being uncreative in complimenting her, aligning the phrase with impotence.

The fact that The Words doesn’t totally work for this interpretation is just further proof that Klugman and Sternthal are better at conception than they are at coming to full term with their ideas. Or, maybe the link between literary creation and making babies is an unintentionally brilliant tadpole of a concept floating in the script. Still, it’s a noticeable and quite interesting point of concentration for the viewer, and just because their delivery isn’t complete, we can continue to labor over it in our heads.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.