One would like to think that “The Words” is intended as an elaborate prank, a satire of really bad writing in the guise of a goofy, multi-layered story about plagiarism. Unfortunately, Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal’s movie is so glum and earnest that they apparently want us to take it seriously. And as such it positively reeks of mediocrity, the cinematic equivalent of one of Fannie Hurst’s turgid old tomes.
The narrative that takes center stage centers on Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), a would-be novelist stymied by perpetual publisher rejection and forced to beg his father (J.K. Simmons) for cash to tide him over. On a honeymoon trip to Paris with his new wife Dora (Zoe Saldana) he finds a battered old satchel in a second-hand shop and buys it. Later he discovers a wrinkled manuscript in one of the briefcase’s compartments and is so moved by the text that he types it, unchanged, onto his computer—where Dora reads it and loves it.
Desperate for success, Rory passes off the work as his own, and it’s quickly embraced by one of the agents he works for (in the firm’s mailroom) and published. “The Window Tears” becomes a smash and wins prestigious awards. Jansen’s on top of the world—until he’s approached by a nameless Old Man (Jeremy Irons) who claims to have been the actual author of the purloined pages and relates, in pastel-colored flashbacks, the tale of how he wrote them in post-war Paris where, as a callow young man, he wed the beautiful Celia (Nora Arnezader). It was after the death of their infant daughter—and Celia’s sudden departure—that he typed the manuscript, but she lost his satchel, and the pages it contained, on the train returning to him.
But this whole story, it turns out, is the plot of another novel, “The Words,” whose hotshot, hot-dog author Clayton Hammond (Dennis Quaid) is reading from the work to an adoring audience, including Columbia grad student Danielle (Olivia Wilde), whom he takes to his apartment after the program, where he tries to seduce her and she grills him none too demurely about his book—which, it’s pretty obvious, is a thinly-veiled autobiographical work in which Jansen is the younger version of Hammond.
It’s also obvious that it’s a piece of tripe. The readings Hammond offers are incredibly humdrum, monosyllabic prose, and the dialogue he puts into the mouths of his characters is hackneyed and cliché-ridden, a parody of honest, incisive writing. The number of groaners you encounter over the course of the picture is astronomical. But ironically this doesn’t make “The Words” any more interesting. It’s a dreary slog, marked by a sleepy performance from colorless Cooper, a hammy one from Irons and a grotesquely over-the-top one from Quaid. The supporting cast—pretty solid overall, with turns by the likes of Simmons, Michael McKean, Ron Rifkin and Zeljko Ivanek—is similarly hamstrung by the pretentious but pulpy material, with particularly poor turns from blankly pretty Wilde and wooden Ben Barnes as the young Old Man.
“The Words” is decently produced, from a purely technical standpoint, although the French locations never look remotely authentic. But it’s a potboiler that, for all its aspirations to profundity, is incredibly shallow and meretricious. It’s one of those movies that says nothing, but does so with apparent conviction that it’s conveying some important moral.
Go read a good book instead.