The Words don’t quite form a complete sentence.
“Rory Jansen” (Bradley Cooper) always wanted to be a writer. He met the woman of his dreams, “Dora” (Zoe Saldana) and they moved in together and ultimately married. He pursued his writing with a vengeance and turned out what some called a strong novel. But it wasn’t “commercial” and one professional in the publishing field told him that he didn’t have any idea how to sell this particular novel.
So Rory gave up his dream – a little – and took a job working in a literary agency. Then he married Dora and they went to Paris on their honeymoon. While shopping in a little store, he noticed a briefcase that was old, worn and yet still looked expensive and serviceable. So Dora bought it for him and it came home with them.
There’s a story behind this briefcase and Rory will learn that story later, but first in exploring it, he finds a manuscript. Oh and what a magical manuscript it is. It has depth of feeling and expression that his own writing never contained. He quickly transcribes the manuscript onto his laptop and then Dora happens to read it. She insists that he show it to someone and reluctantly he does. One of the agents where he works.
The agent reads the “new” manuscript and is enthralled. He is going to represent Rory and he’s going to make a lot of money in the process. Rory will find fame and fortune in the publication of his first novel to be published and it leads to not just recognition, but awards as well.
Then, an “Old Man” (Jeremy Irons) approaches him while he’s reading in the park and he tells him a story. A story about a soldier who was in France during World War II who met a woman and fell in love with her. He went home to the U.S., but returned to France after the war to be with the woman he loved, and they ultimately married and had a child. Tragically the child fell ill and died, and they separated. He started writing his story and ultimately put his manuscript into a briefcase that was ultimately lost at the train station.
Strangely enough, the Old Man doesn’t want anything from Rory. He doesn’t want his money, he doesn’t want credit for having been the actual author of this now famous novel. He just wanted Rory to know, and the guilt is eating at Rory. He wants to confess but his agent won’t hear of it. He doesn’t want to disappoint his father (J.K. Simmons) who supported him in the lean years and is now very proud of his son, “the writer”. He finally confesses to Dora, and that nearly rips their happiness permanently asunder.
Great story, so far, right? Well, stop reading if you don’t want to see any spoilers, because they exist in this review from this point forward because I find it nearly impossible to avoid them while telling the entire tale.
The film opens with “Clay Hammond” (Dennis Quaid) doing a reading of his novel which tells the story of Rory, Dora, the old man, the French woman, the proud father and so on. The old “story within a story” trick and it’s done in such a way as to make you immediately lose any sympathy for the Old Man, Rory, Dora and the rest. Since they don’t really exist, how can one feel sympathy or empathy for them?
But “Daniella” (Olivia Wilde) is at the reading, having talked one of her professors at Columbia, where she’s doing her graduate work, into giving up his ticket. She wants to meet her hero, Hammond, who she knows everything about. Including the fact that he’s separated from his wife, and lots of little details about his life. She convinces him to take her back to his new apartment, which is basically empty, a metaphor on his life at present.
So is Clay Hammond the one who actually discovered someone else’s manuscript and was he confronted by the author? Or is this just a story that he brilliantly conceived and wrote himself. There is nothing to prove either position, you can conclude what you wish. Daniella makes her own conclusions as well.
Quaid and Irons are both good in their roles, with Cooper just not up to the task that this emotional roller-coaster character requires. The story within a story isn’t particularly well done and I’m certain that Ernest Hemmingway is probably rolling over in his grave wondering if he will ever find peace over the real life incident where most of his own early works were lost in a briefcase at a train station. That real life event may be why a part of this story sounded familiar to students of great writers and their histories.