For a movie about writing, about the transporting nature of a compelling narrative and the importance of crafting something timeless and true, "The Words" is needlessly complicated.
It boasts an impressive cast and some glimmers of strong performances, notably from a grizzled Jeremy Irons, whose character sets the film's many stories-within-stories in motion as a young man. And it kinda-sorta explores the notions of art, fraud and the need to sleep at night. But ultimately, "The Words" seems more interested in melodrama than anything else.
The writing-directing team of Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal (who co-wrote the story for "Tron: Legacy" and are childhood friends of star Bradley Cooper) direct for the first time here. Certainly they must be familiar with the doubts and frustrations all writers face at some time or another, the need to have your voice heard and the fear that what you're offering to the world might just plain suck. But while they've come up with a clever nugget of a premise, they've couched it in a gimmicky package that keeps us at arm's length emotionally.
"The Words" begins with celebrated writer Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) reading excerpts from his latest best-selling novel (titled "The Words," conveniently enough) to an enraptured crowd. Among the audience members is the beautiful grad student Daniella (Olivia Wilde), who has come to flirt with him and eventually, in a total 180, force him to face his own truth.
While it's always good to see both of these actors, the film did not need this framing device at all. It's not that it makes things confusing — all the story lines are distinct and clearly delineated, and Quaid and Wilde do have some actual tension with each other — it just feels like show-offy clutter.
As Clay begins to read, the film flashes to the characters in the book and their story, which is probably where the film should have started all along. Cooper plays Rory Jansen, who also happens to be a celebrated writer appearing before an enraptured crowd. What are the odds? Rory is receiving a prestigious award for his debut novel, the one that made him an instant literary sensation. Trouble is, he didn't actually write it.
A flashback to a few years earlier, when his marriage to the beautiful and loving Dora (Zoe Saldana) was still new, reveals him hammering away at his laptop and struggling to find a literary agent who will take a chance on him. While in Paris on their honeymoon, though, he happened to buy an old satchel in a secondhand store. And within that satchel, a typed manuscript happened to be hidden: the story of a young man, his bride and their baby in post-World War II France. And that typed manuscript just happened to be The Real Thing.
Rory knows it's wrong, but he passes off the work as his own, and voila! He's a superstar. But wait! Irons is skulking around, an old man (whose character is literally called Old Man) hoping to talk with Rory and share his own story — which we also see in tastefully lighted, sepia-toned flashbacks. (Antonio Calvache of "Little Children" and "In the Bedroom" is the cinematographer.) It's pretty obvious who this Old Man is, but it's still a pleasure to watch him relish in regaling his tale and make this punk kid squirm. Irons also has some lovely, vulnerable moments, and as Cooper showed last year in "Limitless," he's always a more interesting actor when he's distraught than when he's Being Bradley Cooper.
Still, "The Words" leaves nothing to the imagination, smothering all these storylines in narration that spells out the actions we're seeing or emotions we could infer for ourselves. And the characters themselves in all of these tales are total clichés: the scruffy, hungry writer in his spare Brooklyn loft; the blandly selfless and supportive wife; the wide-eyed, small-town soldier seeing the world for the first time, etc. And Hemingway is referenced ad nauseum, as if he were the only novelist who could possibly influence anyone, ever.
Maybe this was an intentional acknowledgement of literary conventions from Klugman and Sternthal. Or maybe "The Words" really is that eye-rollingly hackneyed.
"The Words," a CBS Films release, is rated PG-13 for brief language. Running time: 97 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions: PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.