If I can say one thing about The Words: It’s off the charts when it comes to having an attractive movie poster. It’s tough to be so pretty as Bradley Cooper and Zoë Saldana lying together on a moodily lit bed. Even though they are fully clothed: Wow.
As for the movie, it is trying to do too much at once, and suffers from having at least one plot too many. It is a story within a story with a story, a stack of Russian nesting dolls where not all plots are equal, or for that matter, interesting. It feels like movie that would have made, ironically, a better book, so I was surprised to find that The Words was apparently written for the screen. (Huh.)
The main plot (at least the main plot advertised in the trailer) tells the story of a young man named Rory Jensen (Bradley Cooper) who earnestly wants to be a writer. His girlfriend, and later wife, Dora (Zoe Saldana) move to New York City, find an arty/gritty apartment, and live in bliss, despite the fact that only Dora is paying the bills (along with Rory’s dad), tolerating Rory typing away at his laptop day and night. But rejection after rejection from publishers soon start to break Rory’s confidence. So when he finds an old manuscript hidden in folds of an antique leather case that he and Dora find on a visit to Paris, he makes a rash decision based on misunderstanding and a lot of desperation: He submits the retyped manuscript as his own to the publishing house where he is a mail boy.
Of course the manuscript is amazing. In fact Rory knows that the mystery author is a better writer than he will ever be, but once the initial lie is in place, Rory takes credit for the book, and soon reaps the rewards and accolades. But when an old man (Jeremy Irons, looking as worn as the leather case) shows up knowing not only the story, but the story behind the story, Rory knows he is busted and has to make a decision.
See, that’s not a bad plot per se, but The Words makes the clunky decision to have Rory’s story told in narration by Dennis Quaid as a famous author reading from his own book. (Olivia Wilde shows up in a thankless role as a groupie/inquisitive grad student.) Less clunky is a third plot—in sepia-toned, almost wordless flashbacks—telling the original, tragic World War II story as remembered by Irons’ character.
But it is simply too much. I actually found myself irritated every time Quaid’s story would resurface, and I could figure out his character’s story a mile away. Curiously, The Words feels like a clunky book adaptation for a book that apparently doesn’t exist. Now I just imagine a book being written based on the movie… and I’ll bet that wouldn’t be very good either.