The Words, as its name suggests, is a wordy melodrama about a young writer, Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), whose his first novel, written over three years, is promptly rejected. Maybe, he wonders, he's not who he thought he was: a writer.
Then he stumbles across a yellowed, unpublished manuscript from long ago and sees his salvation, his shortcut to fame.
Maybe, he realizes, he's not who he thought he was: an ethical, honest man.
The Words is a pleasant but overly complex variation on an idea Woody Allen toyed with in his stumbling You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, the notion of counterfeit literary fame, a stolen manuscript. What co-writer/directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal (Tron: Legacy) attempt to do with it is get at the guilt that comes with ill-gotten glory.
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Rory is cursed with being good enough to recognize the gem he's stumbled across in an attaché case purchased in a Paris antique shop, cursed with knowing this novel is better than anything he'll ever write. His adoring wife, Dora (the luminous Zoë Saldana), can tell him, "You are everything you always wanted to be," but Rory knows better. Every word of praise for this book he copied is a slap at the writer and man he really is.
The Words, in a fit of ambition, goes after its themes by telling three stories, each existing within the others.
There's the dull framework of the piece, a book reading by a novelist, Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid), who delivers the beyond-banal lines from his latest novel about "a young struggling writer struggling to make his voice heard." How did this dullard get to be a famous novelist, with Olivia Wilde as his new, wide-eyed groupie, no less?
He tells us, after a fashion. Hammond narrates the second story, Rory's romance with the fair Dora. We see Rory's years of struggle and his discovery of the novel he would ride to fame. And Hammond, giving away the whole novel in this one reading, apparently, tells of the day Rory meets "The Old Man" (Jeremy Irons), the one person on Earth who recognized this book as his own, written more than half a century earlier, the one man who knows Rory is a fraud.
Is Hammond suggesting this is his own secret?
Quaid has a nice gravitas but is saddled with a "book" that makes Hammond come off as a lousy storyteller. Cooper, earnest as ever, nicely underplays Rory's frustrations but does little to suggest a guy supposedly wracked with guilt over the limo lifestyle he's stolen.
As the Old Man, Irons is the best natural storyteller in the cast, lending warmth to very generic narration of post-World War II romance, tragedy and the fervor in which he created the novel that makes Rory famous. Ben Barnes and Nora Arnezeder play the young couple in the Old Man's flashback within a flashback.
Irons has the disarming twinkle of old age, but he can still turn on the steely glint of accusation and menace. No wonder Cooper looks in awe and ill at ease in their scenes together — the best scenes in the movie.
If you were setting out to write the perfect fall film, you'd include much that's in The Words — romance, romantic settings (New York and Paris), mystery, literary intrigue and longing.
But for that "perfect" film, you'd have to heighten the emotions, make more of the characters and the relationships, find other ways for "temptation" and "retribution" to show themselves. And you'd probably trim a lot of words out of it, especially if the novels within the novel are as weak as the lines the screenwriters have Quaid narrate, the situations Cooper must act out and the script that only the old pro Irons can give the spark of life.