Toward the end of The Words, a celebrated young author named Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) suffers a crisis of confidence. “What do you love about me?” he asks his wife (Zoe Saldana), who has been blandly adoring and supportive throughout the film.
She hesitates a few too many beats before coming out with his best trait: “Your beautiful eyes.”
First-time directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal (who also coscripted) seem to like Cooper’s blue eyes, too. They make them the focus of numerous dramatically lit scenes in which his character languishes in bed with Saldana, looking picturesquely guilt ridden. If only someone had lavished this much affection on the script — or on any other aspect of this interminable-feeling, 87-minute movie.
It’s not that Cooper is wrong for the role. The premise is that Rory Jansen isn’t really a great writer: He just looks the part. After failing to sell his own novels, our hero happens upon a crumbling sheaf of pages in a battered valise in a Paris antique store. Liking what he reads, he succumbs to temptation and passes the mislaid manuscript off as his own. Fame and fortune follow in short order — until the true author of the Hemingway-esque novel (Jeremy Irons) makes his appearance.
Meanwhile, in a framing narrative, we learn that Rory’s story is actually the plot of a novel that celebrity author Clayton Hammond (Dennis Quaid, unbearably hammy and smug) is reading to a rapt crowd. Later, Clayton tries to seduce an eager graduate student (Olivia Wilde) by continuing the story in private.
There’s potential in this metafictional structure, and in the film’s central questions: What turns a mere collection of “words” into a story so compelling it makes readers weep? And does it matter whose byline is attached to those words? In the hands of a screenwriter with an intimate knowledge of the business of literature, The Words might have been a clever, even moving exploration of the paradoxes of fame.
But Klugman and Sternthal appear to have drawn their notions of the writing life from junior-high English class. While they’re fuzzy on the distinction between agents and editors, the film depicts all the literary world’s gatekeepers as stern, suspender-clad white males, as if the story were set in the “Mad Men” era. There’s no discussion of marketing, nor is Rory ever asked how a gen X’er like him managed to channel the voice of an American GI in 1944.
In short, Hammond’s book doesn’t take place in a world where Fifty Shades of Grey dominates the best-seller lists, or in any recognizable world. Perhaps that’s why Wilde’s character grows progressively more hostile, interrogating Clayton Hammond about his oeuvre with such intense, creepy focus that you half expect her to rip off her too-perfect face and reveal a lizard alien sent to Earth to kidnap our most blowhard wordsmiths. Sadly, this doesn’t happen, and viewers hoping for any unexpected twist from the framing story will be likewise disappointed.
Literary plagiarism and fabulism are fascinating subjects, but difficult to depict on film, because the writing process is so internal. (One of the better movies in this vein, Shattered Glass, focused less on the culprit than on his editor.) In The Words, however, Klugman and Sternthal barely even try to get under the skin of a plagiarist; Rory and the other characters are so flat and generic that it’s hard to believe anyone would read a word written by any of them. Pretty eyes are nice, but sometimes they’re not the window to anything.