It seems that writers are getting the spotlight on film these days. There's Ruby Sparks, Sinister, and now The Words, where newly minted sexiest man alive Bradley Cooper plays one who in his desperation does the ethically unthinkable - plagiarism, and while he enjoys the fruits from inevitable success, his soul gets gnawed away by incredible guilt, and more so when the original writer, played by Jeremy Irons, come knocking on his door.
But that's not all. There are a total of three stories in different timelines that are tackled in directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal's ambitious tale, boasting a stellar cast but ultimately these ingredients usually thought necessary for a hit movie, turned out to be quite the bore, akin to all freshness being sucked from a xeroxed copy of something original. There's Cooper, Irons, Zoe Saldana, Dennis Quaid, Olivia Wilde, and two younger actors in Ben Barnes and Nora Arnezeder all playing characters whose lives intertwine at different points over the decades, with a twist that didn't come as much of a surprise given both Klugman and Sternthal's direction in placing events in quite verbose fashion. Or perhaps having two directors meant a more schizophrenic narrative treatment.
The Words opens with Dennis Quaid as Clay Hammond, a successful novelist who is doing a large scaled book reading for fans, and in between chapters and during a break, find fancy in the student-writer Daniella, played by Olivia Wilde in yet another role that requires maximum use of her come hither looks, so much so that it's really getting quite tired. They flirt between sessions, and finally you get the sense of an expected evening where both parties get to fulfill their lustful desires, if not for curiosity and plenty more posturing questions to come ruin the atmosphere, from a romantic one into a rather investigative one instead.
Then from Hammond's reading comes his tale of the writer Rory Jansen (Cooper), an impoverished writer who is constantly looked down by many since he's deemed untalented for his chosen profession. Seeking out his dad (J.K. Simmons) for charity to tide him over his difficult times, perhaps it is his wife Dora (Zoe Saldana) who has a major role to play in the events that unfold, where their shopping trip ended up with Rory getting an antique looking bag, where within he finds an unpublished manuscript. For some inexplicable reason he types every single word and punctuation mark into his laptop, which Dora reads because she finds it impossible that his work is taking precedence over their sexual lives, gets tremendously moved, and encourages him to publish it.
That story that Rory transcribed into his laptop, forms the final piece of the puzzle, which tells the tale of a post WWII soldier (Ben Barnes) who picks up the pen and writes while in France, married to his muse Celia (Nora Arnezeder), and is thought to be living the dream despite having little, only for tragedy to strike deep, and how recovery and salvation never quite came by. Part of the supposed mystery here is for the audience to piece together how each of the sequence of stories would relate to the present time, and ponder over how events take on a Russian Doll like approach.
What would have been a lot more interesting, and left relatively unexplored, is the issue of morals, since the second arc took up the bulk of the screen time. Instead it put the focus on the various obsessive writers in all the three stories, and about their broken marriages, which somehow turns this into an anti-romantic genre film, with hope that is bleak. There's the exploration of how lies tend to take on a life of its own, and how a bigger lie is almost always necessary to cover up an initial one. With plagiarism comes the impact on the editors and the publishing industry should it get wind of doubt creeping up onto a bestseller that it may not be an original work, and a copied one at that, with reputations expected to be headed to the doldrums.
Star power can only take a film so far, and the best scenes involve Cooper and Irons sharing in the same frame especially when they debate once the truth got revealed, because everything else seemed to be coasting through and devoid of life, as if a tale based on copying, translates lifelessly onto the screen as well. Which is a real pity.