A literary film that stands to work best for those who don’t read, “The Words” is a slick, superficially clever compendium of stories about authors of uncertain talent and varying success. As is the case in too many films about writers, the pic avoids sharing actual prose in more than teasing snippets — a choice that, along with the multigenerational casting of Jeremy Irons, Dennis Quaid and Bradley Cooper, bespeaks its bid for the widest possible appeal. Nevertheless, CBS Films’ high-profile Sundance pickup, skedded for fall release, will require some improbably kind words from crix and auds to put it over.
As delivered by co-writer-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, the movie’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em flashes of text onscreen utterly fail — presumably on purpose — to establish the exact nature of “The Window Tears,” a postwar European page-turner whose yellowing manuscript callow Rory Jensen (Cooper) finds tucked in an old Parisian satchel and passes off as his own. Celebrated as a work of genius (who’s an uninformed viewer to argue?), “Tears” brings joy to Jensen until the book’s true author, known only, and absurdly, as the “Old Man” (Irons), comes to threaten the younger scribe’s reputation.
As it happens, all this is merely the plot of a pulpy and popular novel called “The Words,” whose hotshot author, Clayton Hammond (Quaid), appears onstage in New York reading it aloud — in portions lengthy enough to let us know he’s a hack, if not a full-on plagiarist himself. What’s shrewdest about this stories-within-a-story conceit is how it allows the pic to suggest that its lack of literary flair is primarily Hammond’s fault and not the film’s.
At least “The Words” works visually to a point, capably embellishing not just Hammond’s fiction but his real life backstage in the company of a fawning young Columbia U. grad student (Olivia Wilde). Alas, Wilde’s pushy Danielle is but one of the pic’s stereotypically bothersome women-behind-the-men, along with Jensen’s upwardly aspirant wife, Dora (Zoe Saldana), and ’40s-era Euro barmaid Celia (Nora Arnezeder), who not only abandons the Old Man’s younger self but loses his precious manuscript as well.
While Irons, yellow-toothed and cane-toting, is forced to play a would-be administer of comeuppance who gets all misty-eyed and gentle whenever it comes time to cue a flashback, Cooper and Quaid prove highly effective as men who fear they may not deserve their success. In particular, Quaid works wonders, subtly suggesting that Hammond’s tale of a literary thief could well be a work of veiled autobiography.
Klugman and Sternthal’s dialogue — or, if one wishes to be charitable, Hammond’s — is simply atrocious, leaning heavily on cliches and stilted platitudes. Intentionally or not, the pic’s wittiest line has Rory’s agent taking a pass on “The Burning Tree,” a mysterious book the plagiarist actually wrote himself, for being “too interior.”
New York interiors appear handsome, implausibly so in the case of the spacious Manhattan digs that Rory and Dora enjoy in his “struggling” period. Marcelo Zarvos’ piano- and string-based score sounds fine as formulaic and overused movie music goes.