The Words is a series of interconnected stories nestled together like a set of Russian dolls, all of them centered on the art of writing. Clay (Dennis Quaid) is a successful novelist reading from his latest bestseller to a capacity crowd (he is apparently intent on reading the entire book, which looks to be about 400 pages). Rory (Bradley Cooper) is an aspiring novelist whose first book, his agent tells him, is great but unmarketable (it’s too “interior, artistic, subtle” — all the things this movie is not). His wife Dora (Zoe Saldana) rubs his shoulders and strokes his hair in support and tells him to try again.
But Rory has lost faith in his muse: He spent three years working on that novel, and now he’s crushed and defeated. “I’m not who I thought I was,” he tells his wife, “and I’m terrified I never will be.”
Then Rory finds an unsigned manuscript inside an old satchel that turns out to be one of the best things he has ever read. A brief crisis of conscience later, he submits it as his own work and becomes a literary sensation. Sure, the book isn’t his, but there’s no guilt lots of champagne and money and adulation can’t assuage. Beside, where’s the harm? He didn’t steal the manuscript from anyone. Finders keepers, right?
I kept watching The Words waiting for the movie to make a discernable point other than these characters are a bunch of self-obsessed jerks. My hopes perked up when Jeremy Irons entered the fray as a craggy old man prone to sitting on park benches and saying such things as “We all make choices in life. The hard thing is to live with them.” You know you’re stuck in a bad movie when even the great Irons, with his commanding voice and inimitable eloquence, sounds like a twit.
The Hoax, made in 2006, told a similar story about an author (Richard Gere) who came up with an inventive (and highly illegal) way to get a book sold. That movie, which was based on the real-life case of Clifford Irving, was lively and funny and gave you an actual sense of the inner workings of the publishing industry and the difficulty of breaking into the game.
The Words was written and directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, who are longtime friends of Cooper but don’t seem to know (or care) much about their subject matter. The actor helped them get their movie made, and it’s filled with flashbacks and elegant lighting and a deadly inertia, like most movies about writing are. Even the story-within-a-story structure doesn’t pay off. This material needed more substance and ideas — and less flash and sumptuous production values. We need to have another reason to care about Rory other than the fact he can’t get his novel sold. Join the club, pal! The Words is a movie about writing and books made by people who apparently rarely read.