Grade: B- (RENT IT)
“DON’T YOU KNOW words ruin everything!” That’s Dennis Quaid, as novelist Clay Hammond, in “The Words,” a morality play on the perils of plagiarism. Written and directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, “The Words” is also the title of Hammond’s newest novel, which tells the tale of a young writer named Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) struggling to find literary stardom.
If that sounds like a story-within-a-story, that’s because “The Words” is a three-tiered narrative in which Hammond pulls the Thackeray-like strings, giving a public reading of his new work and attracting the attention of his number one fan (Olivia Wilde). Quaid duplicates the arrogant professor role he played in 2008’s “Smart People” – could this tepid performance be a form of self-plagiarism? – and his lifeless narration drains “The Words” of much of its energy. Still, the tale he tells is an absorbing one: rejection letter after rejection letter, Rory is turned away for writing books described by literary agents as too “interior.” Honeymooning in Paris, he finds, while antiquing, a yellowed and unpublished manuscript sealed inside a suitcase. That manuscript, which Rory promptly publishes as his own, is entitled “The Window Tears,” and it brings Rory immediate commercial and critical success. Rory’s own number one fan is his randy wife Dora (Zoë Saldana) who believes wholeheartedly in her husband’s potential, that is, until his literary lie is revealed. After reading Rory’s new novel, she tells him: “there are parts of you in this novel never seen before.”
The problem is that Rory’s best work yet has been seen before: by its actual author (a commanding Jeremy Irons) who comes out of the woodwork to confront Rory with his plagiarism. Known as the Old Man, the Irons character has yet another tale to impart and he does so on a bench in Central Park. This third narrative, told in flashbacks, is more urgent than the others because it’s undoubtedly his own: as a young man (played by Ben Barnes) in 1940s France, he wrote “The Window Tears” in the wake of his baby girl’s death only for the manuscript to be lost by his waitress wife (Nora Amezeder). This inner-most story in “The Words” mirrors the real-life legend of Hemingway’s first wife who lost Papa’s unpublished writings in 1922 and because of it, lost Hemingway’s love and trust forever.
Since his breakout performance in “The Hangover,” Bradley Cooper has sobered up and partaken in more intelligent fare. The problem is that for a film about the pitfalls of plagiarism and the pressures of originality, clichés abound. Writers on screen are usually portrayed as selfish sadsacks, and Rory is no exception; he’s a well-groomed thirysomething still hitting his father up for money. Given, however, his robust wardrobe, Cooper looks more like an assistant editor at Men’s Journal than he does a Franzenish raconteur. Lukewarm, “The Words” is a noble effort with only modest results. It’s as if “The Words,” which is neither boring nor exciting, was written in invisible ink.