Watching “The Words” is less like reading a Great American Novel and more like opening Russian nesting dolls to find nothing. A story within a story within a story, this tepid literary drama marks the writing-directing debut of Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, who try to dovetail three interweaved stories with little success. Director Stephen Daldry crafted a similiar three-story structure in 2002’s “The Hours,” involving English author Virginia Woolf and two other women from two different times, but that film was literate, beautifully written and richly textured. There’s a promising nugget of an idea here about the writing process and life vs. fiction, but gimmicky, needlessly unfocused, and dramatically uneven, “The Words” is less clever and challenging than it thinks it is.
A wraparound sequence begins with respected author Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) reading chapters from his popular novel, entitled (you guessed it) The Words. It traces the odyssey of Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), a struggling novelist who, after moving into a chic Manhattan loft with his soon-to-be wife Dora (Zoe Saldana) and working in the mailroom at a literary agency, can’t seem to get his latest work published. Then, after he and Dora marry and honeymoon in Paris, Rory stumbles upon an old leather satchel in an antique shop that contains a long-lost manuscript. At the end of his rope, he knows it’s wrong but transcribes it word for word anyway. Dora finds the story on his laptop and raves about it, saying it’s different from anything he’s ever written and expresses his true self, so he submits it to his literary agent and voila! Rory’s a literary superstar. Meanwhile, the Old Man (Jeremy Irons), the story’s real author, follows Rory and finally confronts the phony pissant about his plagiaristic fraud. Adding to the two narrative timelines is the Old Man’s story about a WWII soldier (Ben Barnes) falling in love with a French cafe waitress (Nora Arnezeder). Back to the wraparound, Clay is being more or less stalked by a flirtatious Columbia grad student named Daniella (Olivia Wilde), who knows everything about her favorite author and tries forcing his inner truths out of him.
A small, simple morality yarn about a struggling writer facing the ethical dilemmas from plagiarism would have been just fine, but first-timers Klugman and Sternthal were overly ambitious, thinking more would be better. Drenched in a sprawling self-importance, the layered framing device they’ve constructed just needlessly clutters the story and adds very little. We invest most of our time with Roryâ€”easily the most developed and absorbing narrative threadâ€”that it’s hard to care about the rest.
The script also takes huge leaps in logic, making us question how the broke Rory and Dora can afford their apartment prior to publishing his “remarkable work of fiction” and winning a prestigious literary award. And how exactly does Rory later find the Old Man at a greenhouse when he didn’t even get his name? Speaking of sloppiness, the technical specs are competent but unpolished. In one particular scene set in an alleyway, post-production dubbing is apparent, Cooper’s cuss words not matching the movement of his lips (as if the filmmakers were forced to land a PG-13 rating).
Given the script and stiltedly pretentious platitudes for dialogue, the fine cast of actors cannot be blamed. In the pivotal role of the conflicted Rory, Cooper is unexpectedly convincing as a scruffy writer determined to have his voice heard and pushes beyond his comfort zone of the comic shenanigans in either of “The Hangover” movies. (He even shares a good scene with the ever-reliable J.K. Simmons as his father, who’s sick of paying his son’s dues.) The winning Saldana, though given a mere sketch of a character to play, shares a candid chemistry with her co-star as the supportive wife Dora, who later must contend with betrayal. It’s really Irons (in grizzled older-age makeup) who anchors the film, finding heartbreak as his character unveils his identity. His Old Man is never treated as a villain, but as a broken man that just wants credit for his own typed work. Otherwise, there’s no reason for Quaid to be here, and Wilde is given short shrift in an unmotivated part that makes her a writer groupie. There’s a sensual tension between them that just feels forced.
Had Klugman and Sternthal tightened their focus, the film might have fully realized its potential. Though complex in structure, it’s disappointing how simplistic and transparent it ends up being. What’s more, the film doesn’t quite come together and just stops rather than ends. Feeling more like a screenplay in development than a final draft ready for principal photography, “The Words” needed to undergo, in one word, a rewrite.
96 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C –