Movie Review: “The Words”

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The literary world and the frauds within it get a cinematic examination in “The Words,” a crushingly mediocre drama that doesn’t know a thing about literature and doesn’t particularly pretend to.

Written and directed by the team of Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, “The Words” is ostensibly the story of a young aspiring novelist (Bradley Cooper) who, honeymooning in Paris with his fiancé (Zoe Saldana) stumbles upon a brilliant, unpublished manuscript. Frustrated by his inability to get his own novel published, Cooper submits the found work as his own, becoming an overnight literary sensation.

Does his dishonest act come back to haunt him? Of course it does- the author of the original work (Jeremy Irons) is not only still alive six decades later, but shows up in New York to confront him. But don’t worry- Cooper and the old man are themselves merely characters in ANOTHER novel, one written by successful middle-aged author Dennis Quaid, who in a framing device is telling the story over wine to a literary groupie (Olivia Wilde.)

The problems with the film are myriad, and not only because Cooper is playing a character who’s supposed to be right out of college while the actor is clearly in his mid-to-late 30s. The story-within-a-story structure is a failure, mostly because it makes us not care about the Cooper character, since we know he doesn’t exist. Not even a late plot twist can redeem this fatal flaw.

Then there’s the issue that the movie doesn’t really care about the novel-within-the-movie, nor does it ever demonstrate to us how great it is- we only know it because characters keep saying so.

“The Words” also concerns a topic- being a plagiarist and a fraud, and coming to terms with knowing you’re one- that isn’t exactly central to the experience of being a writer. Other, similarly themed movies- notably “Morvern Callar,” “The Hoax” and of course “Shattered Glass”- have handled the topic much better. And the whole thing is undercut repeatedly by an intrusive, overwrought classical score.

The story-within-the-story-within-the-story that’s the basis for the novel- about a young couple after the war experiencing love and tragedy, amid myriad Hemingway references- is the only worthwhile element in the film.

Cooper’s performance is all wrong, and the film cuts him way more of a break than the character deserves. Saldana is given very little to do, and Irons, as The Old Man (yes, that’s his name in the credits) is a lone bright spot. A whole host of strong character actors-  J.K. Simmons, Zeljko Ivanek, Michael McKeon- keep showing up for about a minute at a time.

I would sort of like to see a movie about the thought process of a Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair or Jonah Lehrer type, and how they go about their life after a career-ending plagiarism scandal, when they’ve blackballed from doing the one thing they love most. But “The Words” has way more than that on its mind, and just about none of it works.

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