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"The Words" is a story about a story about a man who steals a story. The stolen story is apparently so good that its thief, an aspiring author named Rory (Bradley Cooper), becomes an instant critical and commercial darling — hailed as a genius, paid like a popular hack. Rory is fictional, imagined by an established author named Clay (Dennis Quaid), whose story about Rory stealing the story is good enough that it's in hardback and apparently also quite popular. Alas, the story about Clay's story about Rory's story-stealing isn't all that great. Good enough to be made into a movie called "The Words," and likely good enough to entertain you and a date for 96 minutes. But in the plotting, acting and direction, it goes squishy before it attains real resonance. What you're left with is a merely pleasant film that drops a thought or two into your lap before it wanders away to thumb through a magazine.
If "The Words" manages to create a single interesting character, it's probably Rory, whom Cooper plays with a placid earnestness that'll have you wondering why the guy from "The Hangover" is OD'ing on Xanax. He's a struggling author who grinds away at a novel at night while borrowing and day-jobbing enough spare change to afford a Brooklyn loft with his endlessly supportive lady Dora (Zoe Saldana, vaguely recognizable as the Na'vi ingenue in "Avatar"). We know he has promise — an agent left-handedly compliments his novel as too arty to publish — but we also can discern nothing from his on-screen actions that would suggest he has much insight, verbal ability or drive to research. We do however see, encouragingly enough, that he can type.
Fortunately for this Hemingway wannabe, he stumbles across an unpublished novelistic memoir from the '40s that happens to be extraordinary. Just for jollies he retypes it. One thing leads to another, and before he knows what's happened, the book is in print and taking over the world. If Rory had been purely a fame-hound, this would be all skittles and beer. As the sensitive type, though, he's ambivalent. When he encounters a man with a claim to the story (Jeremy Irons, wringing out his lines for all they're worth) he genuinely grapples with the next steps; that confrontation, at least, is one of the finer scenes in the film. When the old man tells the story of the story within the story within the story, "The Words" begins to feel like "Inception" crossed with "The Notebook."
Too bad the resolution he and the old man find thlub-thlubs like a worn Whoopie cushion. Maybe if this story, the real story of "The Words," hadn't been nested inside the frame of Dennis Quaid's author, it could've gone further into the fallout. Instead we have Quaid — the very picture of a rakish, middle-aged literary-type, incidentally — reading the story before a packed audience and mashing on a star-struck grad student (Olivia Wilde). That storyline, the exterior frame, also stops well shy of profundity.
Writer/directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal (both in their directorial and screenplay-writing debuts) don't fail here because of a lack of sincerity; very much in the film's favor, it's clearly a heartfelt work of attempted art. The score, for one, rises and swells with Very Serious Strings that telegraph its Strong Commitment to Emotion. But they feel out of their depth, Rorys themselves. Where in the script are the striking turns of phrase? Or a memorable line of any sort? This is a story about authors that evinces no intimacy with books. It's more literaryish than truly literary, and when you're telling stories about literature that gap is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.