One of the most foolish things that a movie about a great artist (a musician, a painter, a writer, etc.) can do is show the audience the character’s supposedly great work of art. Because unless the filmmakers have hired one of the world’s greatest musicians or painters or writers to create the fictional piece, it’s never going to live up to the reputation that the movie has devised for it. In The Words, Bradley Cooper plays struggling writer Rory Jansen, who stumbles upon an old manuscript in a satchel he picks up at an antique shop and, in a moment of weakness, decides to pass the work off as his own.
The movie only shows quick snippets of this allegedly brilliant work, but there are enough words flashing on the screen to discern that the novel isn’t nearly as transcendent as every character makes it out to be. Rory’s story is framed as the text from yet another novel, this one read aloud by renowned novelist Clayton Hammond (Dennis Quaid) to a rapt audience in a lecture hall. Within Rory’s story is a third story, that of the novel’s nameless true author (Jeremy Irons), who tediously lays out his faux-Hemingway background as an expat in Paris after World War II.
So it’s a story within a story within a story, and none of those stories is interesting or surprising. Writer-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal set up the framing story with Clayton like a puzzle, planting ominous hints via a mysterious grad student played by Olivia Wilde. Every time they return to Clayton’s interactions with the coy younger woman, they keep teasing the other shoe that just never drops. Beyond the awkward, pseudo-profound dialogue, the clumsy performances (Irons chews scenery unapologetically) and the maudlin, overbearing score, the biggest problem with the movie is that it lays out its nested stories without any intriguing twists or original ideas. Klugman and Sternthal practically beg the audience to be impressed with their literary insights, when the movie doesn’t actually have anything to say. Like Rory’s purloined novel, The Words is nothing but a big cheat.