Layered with intrigue but hollow where it counts, “The Words” serves up romance, ambition, plagiarism and heartbreak in stories of three authors who have let literary aspiration usurp love. But enticingly constructed gimmickry cannot compensate for a lack of pithiness and passion in this story about great writing.
The film is the directorial debut of Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, whose résumés include story credits on “Tron: Legacy.” They prove smoother at the helm than at the keyboard here as they present two primary scenarios and a framing device, nesting-doll style.
In New York, shallow but bestselling author Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) gives a reading from his latest novel.
As he speaks, the picture shifts to the fictive world of his characters. They include Rory (Bradley Cooper), a writer with a supportive wife, Dora (Zoe Saldana), and considerable talent, but without the accessibility factor it takes to get published.
The trouble begins when Dora buys Rory an old leather bag at one of those antique shops whose wares can trigger life-changing events, moviewise. Inside, Rory discovers a manuscript. It wows him.
Rory types the unknown writer’s novel into his computer, puts his byline on it, and without telling Dora about the lie, he becomes a star.
But then the real author, now a grizzled Old Man (Jeremy Irons), shows up. Rory must confront the consequences of his fraud.
As they peel away narrative layers to reveal Rory’s moral tumble and the Old Man’s similarly ambition-fueled mistakes (the latter transpire in postwar Paris), the filmmakers deliver some spark. The hint that fictional Rory is a stand-in for real-life Clay is among several engaging ideas tossed up.
They also display a welcome regard for writers, even if references seem limited to Hemingway. Best is the depiction of the common fear of authors that even their most inspired writing clunks.
But for every worthy moment, there are flat stretches and cliches, and the result is a film that isn’t rewarding on the surface or substantial at the core.
One character smashes his typewriter in frustration. Good writing is portrayed as a convulsion of inexplicable inspiration preceded by trauma and drunkenness.
And for a story about good writing, the movie contains little. “We all make choices in this life — the hardest thing is to live with them,” says the presumably sage Old Man. Credit Irons for making this contrived character almost credible.
Cooper, meanwhile, is less convincing as a morally torn writer, while Quaid fares better as Clay. He’s particularly effective when suggesting, in an encounter with a grad student (Olivia Wilde) who wants to get into both his head and his bed, that, deep down, he’s sadly aware of how mediocre he is.