"The Words" is one of those movies that makes being a writer seem like a sacred calling, a vocation akin to learning how to be the Dalai Lama or being chosen to receive personal orphan-washing lessons from Mother Teresa. In reality, the act of writing simply involves a lot of frowning, butt-scratching and imbibing of caffeinated beverages, though, admittedly, that doesn't make for a very dynamic movie. It's probably better to have Bradley Cooper star as an aspiring writer who toils away at the creation of a novel — it's actually not a bad one, as a publishing type played by Ron Rifkin assures him — only to learn that there's just no market for what he's trying to do. Then one day he opens an old leather case that he and his new wife (Zoe Saldana) bought in an antiques store while honeymooning in Paris, and finds…
Words! Lots of words! Really good ones, too. He loves these words so much — they tell the story of an American soldier at the end of World War II who meets and falls in love with a French girl — that he decides to type them into his computer himself. Eventually, they become a best-selling book, earning him great acclaim. He's so happy with his easy-peasy success that he almost convinces himself he actually wrote these words. Until he meets the old codger — played by Jeremy Irons, in a very writerly, codgerish tweed hat — who actually did.
"The Words," written and directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, is actually three movies nested in one. There's the story of Cooper and Saldana, newlyweds who kiss and cuddle as they wash dishes in their supposedly workaday but in reality probably very expensive flat, surrounded by some extremely photogenic dust motes. Then there's the story of the young soldier (Ben Barnes) and his pretty wife (Nora Arnezeder), for whom romance turns into tragedy — but before it does, they too kiss and cuddle amidst mid-century French dust motes. And then there's the framing device — because what real writer doesn't love a framing device? — of the novelist, played by Dennis Quaid, who has spun out this whole, allegedly fictional tale-within-a-tale. A comely lit-stalker (Olivia Wilde) who tracks him down at one of his readings may be the one to uncover the truth, to force him to reckon at last with the skinny-minny chasm between fiction and reality…
By now, you may have noticed my repeated and very writerly use of ellipses. The ellipsis is an extremely useful device that real writers sometimes employ to put supposedly meaningful distance between… words. But I digress. In terms of visual lushness, "The Words" works reasonably well as a romance for adults. Cinematographer Antonio Calvache gives the period sections in particular a muted, pearlescent sheen, making it easier to believe that everyone just looked prettier and more handsome in olden times. And one of the picture's key scenes works beautifully: Irons holds Cooper, and us, spellbound as he relays the true story behind the stolen novel. For a few golden minutes, Irons makes us believe his character has earned the deep, mournful hollows under his eyes. Quaid has a less significant role, but he does a lot with a little; he's simultaneously wily and weathered, the kind of guy you'd love to trust even though you're not sure you ought to.
But too much of the time we're left watching Bradley Cooper, a mildly talented actor who has somehow become a sizable star. Cooper is possibly handsome, in a generic, Sexiest Man Alive way. When he needs to look vulnerable, he works so hard you can almost hear the gears turning; most of the time he just wears the beady-eyed look of someone who's trying to put something over on someone.
Of course, in "The Words," his character is trying to hoodwink us, but there's nothing here that goes beyond the stock, bland Bradley Cooper shtick. Another actor might have made us feel something complicated for this troubled soul, but Cooper merely looks like the kind of guy who would steal another man's story. He hasn't been tapped by the muse, and it shows.