With the prestigious, thoughtful films of fall still in the kitchen, "The Words" provides a bland appetizer. It's a literary soap opera told in three stranded stories about novelists, brought to the screen by co-screenwriter/co-director team Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, who seem not to be big readers.
In present-day Manhattan, we have Clayton Hammond (Dennis Quaid), a sleek, self-satisfied novelist whose readings pack upscale auditoriums. Clayton's writing is ponderous and reeks of artificial flavoring, although neither his audience nor the filmmakers seem to be aware of that. At a fundraiser, he reads aloud the opening of his latest novel, a story about a would-be writer named Rory Jensen. We travel through this clumsy framing device to encounter Rory (Bradley Cooper, of the raunchy "Hangover" comedies), cast against type as the pensive scribbler.
Rory's struggles are not that tough, truth be told. His dad, played with gruff warmth by J.K. Simmons, keeps him afloat financially, he eats at top restaurants and he shares a stupendous New York City loft with his ever-supportive wife, Dora (Zoe Saldana). Rory's issue is a talent deficit. He has the self-regard and temperament of an artist, but not the ability. "I'm not who I thought I was," he declares, "and I'm terrified that I never will be."
On a Paris vacation with Dora, she buys him an antique valise containing a yellowed manuscript. It is a masterpiece of love and death in World War II that embodies Rory's every ambition. Retyping "The Window Tears" on his laptop, Rory presents it to his agent as his own work. It becomes a phenomenon. Fame and fortune are his, with only an occasional twinge of ethical indigestion.
But he is shadowed by Jeremy Irons, playing a character identified as the Old Man, which gives you some idea of the inspiration that went into this enterprise. If you can't guess what connection the Old Man has to the Parisian briefcase, you are the target market for "The Words."
Soon the baton of the narrative passes to the Old Man, whose memories of postwar France Rory has purloined.
Back in real-world Manhattan, Hammond ends his story of two authors with a cliff-hanger. Comely Columbia grad student Danielle (Olivia Wilde) pesters him for more, seeking an autobiographical element in his story. Uncorking a bottle of champagne, he lectures her on the difference between life and art while attempting to maneuver her into his penthouse boudoir.
The film is not especially insightful about writing. It reinforces the misconception that great works arrive in a burst of creativity brought on by a tragic love affair, ideally in Paris. Of the three male leads, Quaid is the most successful, creating a bestselling hack who recognizes, but slickly conceals, his misgivings about the gap between his creativity and his aspirations. Given the drab dialogue and tepid drama of "The Words," he's probably the character Klugman and Sternthal understood best. Their film is not what they thought it was, and it never will be.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186