The Words is a peculiar, old-school beast to encounter in the movie year 2012, lacking utterly in computer-generated effects, not to mention Avengers and masked superheroes in general. It’s more or less a grown-up picture, and not bad at that, although its muted and patient style (mitigating a multilayered and not wholly satisfying narrative) has both its merits and its drawbacks. Still, as I say: not bad.
It tells three stories, and it’s up to the viewer to determine how much they intersect and who’s responsible for what fabrication. Dennis Quaid starts things off, which is good, because this is one of his best recent performances, full of sly charisma and an undercurrent of gnawing insecurity. He plays a successful novelist delivering a public reading of his latest work, The Words. Olivia Wilde, her eyes dancing with I’m-in-lust-with-my-literary-hero, portrays a graduate student working on her dissertation and determined to make contact with the star of the evening. At the cocktail reception following the Manhattan reading, they strike up a conversation. It is clear where it may lead.
Most of the film, however—written and directed by the debut feature team of Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal—illustrates the love story from which Quaid’s character reads aloud. In that one, top-billed and executive producer Bradley Cooper is a struggling novelist married to a woman (Zoe Saldana) with whom he honeymoons in Paris. There, in an old consignment shop, they find a nifty ancient satchel, which she buys him as a gift.
Back home in New York City, the writer discovers a manuscript inside the satchel. It’s a World War II-era love story, on the quality level of Hemingway’s finest pre-WWII work. The writer, initially by accident but mostly by morally indefensible design, decides to pass the story off as his own. It gets published. It makes him famous, and rich. And soon the actual, unsung author of the work, played with scraggly relish by Jeremy Irons, enters the picture.
The way The Words toggles between the “fictional” stories and the “real,” present-day one, recalls a Nicholas Sparks Notebook-y affair, albeit with a lot less creamy romance and balderdash. Cooper clearly has an affinity for arrogant, somewhat shifty protagonists (a la the recent Limitless), though there are times when his sense of cool comes off simply as cold, and when he seems more like a set of whitening strips in search of an actor. The film, a busy bee in terms of its storylines, doesn’t quite come together the way it could, or should. But this writer-director team at least presumes an audience can pay attention if it chooses to, or else simply relax and enjoy an attractive cast wrestle with various crises of conscience.