In the 2011 film Limitless, Bradley Cooper is Eddie Morra, a struggling novelist. His ponytail is greasy, his apartment is a mess, his girlfriend is fed up. Then he accepts a neural accelerator from a shady source, finishes his manuscript in four days, shoves it in his editor’s face and promptly moves on to day trading and sport fucking. In The Words, released this past Friday, Cooper again plays a writer (Rory Jansen) confronted with a Faustian dilemma. The Words is a mess of cinematic and literary clichés weighed down further by a vaguely meta-fictional plot, twin voiceovers, and an obsession with a sparkling brand of literary celebrity that no longer exists, but it does effectively illustrate the difficulties inherent in conveying the illusion of great art and it serves as the most recent example of Hollywood’s strange vision of writers and their creative process.
The Words traffics in Easy Bake literary shorthand (Brooklyn lofts, Paris cafes, tweed, pensive cigarette puffs) familiar to any pretentious ninth-grader. Occasionally the camera pans a computer screen or a yellow page just closely enough for the viewer to scan half a sentence. The voiceovers, provided by a smug Dennis Quaid and a raspy Jeremy Irons, suggest we’re not missing much. Let’s just say that Quaid’s Clayton Hammond — a wealthy and respected novelist — would probably take great professional delight in describing Olivia Wilde’s eyes as “almond” and Bradley Cooper’s as “an icy blue.”
While the film employs a mirrored plot device, audiences may be bothered by a nagging sense of unintentional déjà vu. Movies about writers can differ in a few key ways, but there is one near constant: literary fiction is exclusively male territory. Women serve as muses and dishwashers. “Why would a beautiful and intelligent young woman like you want to be a writer?” Hammond asks Wilde’s Daniella, a Columbia grad student, as he pins her against a beam in his cheesy duplex. Additionally, the plot hinges on an act of fraud that is, ironically, very similar to the plots of other films. I was reminded of A Murder of Crows for the first time in many years, in which aspiring writer Lawson Russell (Cuba Gooding Jr.) publishes his dead friend’s manuscript as his own and enjoys instant fame and fortune. Recent scandals have shown that this type of behavior continues to tempt even those at the pinnacle of the profession.
What feeds these temptations? The blank page, a fear of rejection, claustrophobia, philosophical questions of ownership. The darker elements of creation are excellent fodder for thrillers and effective platforms for comedies. These films take the work itself less seriously (often a lack of literary merit is part of the joke) and instead focus on the pitfalls of the creative life. They ignore the words for the work and all that can inspire and disrupt it: psycho fans, ex-wives, portals to the Underworld. These writers can be cynical hacks (As Good As It Gets), genre stars (Misery) or dislocated sportswriters (Funny Farm). In romantic comedies, the writer is often a witty Lothario or a good-natured wimp. Either way, the profession’s primary function is to provide the character with plenty of free time. A more successful genre is the Literary Young Man Coming of Age. In these cases (The Squid and the Whale, Orange County) the films succeed because the film is the novel and the focus is on the yearning for a fulfilling creative life rather than a specific written work. The most offensive depictions usually appear in melodramas (The Words, A Love Song for Bobby Long), which exploit a milieu in order to tell vapid stories that wish to be considered intelligent simply for acknowledging the existence of literary culture.
Better to make a biopic (Quills, Becoming Jane, Miss Potter). While these films are frequently dull, they can coast on borrowed esteem and there’s much less potential for embarrassment. Nobody has to do the extra work of creating a fake masterpiece. We are familiar with Capote’s ouevre and are free to judge it as we wish.
The only evidence we have of Clayton Hammond’s greatness is a few fawning autograph seekers and a fancy refrigerator. We are told that Sean Connery’s William Forrester is a Salinger-level genius in Finding Forrester. We are assured that Grady Tripp’s fiction makes up for his numerous personal failings in Wonder Boys. But even Chabon didn’t want to waste good writing by giving his protagonist a few juicy paragraphs. Instead these films rely on our familiarity with Hollywood-established Literary Personality tropes: needy yet reclusive, lecherous yet noble, wise yet drug-addled. You know, writers.
A Quick Guide to Writing a Movie About a Writer:
You are writing a movie about a writer. He is a great writer. He must be a great writer, the plot demands it. Here are a few necessary visual shortcuts.
1. Tweed, tattered sweaters, corduroy, maybe an old Army jacket.
2. Bouts of inopportune drunkenness.
3. A library with one of those sliding ladders or perilous stacks surrounding a stained mattress (throw in a dusty globe to suggest world-weariness).
4. Rub jaw or stroke beard.
5. Have writer tell a beautiful and supportive female character that she just doesn’t get it.
Publicity image via The Words