Words is a pleasant but overly complex variation on an idea Woody Allen toyed with in his stumbling You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, this notion of counterfeit literary fame, a stolen manuscript. What co-writer/directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal (TRON: Legacy) attempt to do with it is get at the guilt that comes with ill-gotten glory.
Struggling writer Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) is cursed with being good enough to recognize the gem he has stumbled across in an attache case bought in a Paris shop, cursed with knowing this novel is better than anything he'll ever write. His adoring wife (the luminous Zoe Saldana) can tell him "You are everything you always wanted to be," but Rory knows better.
The Words, in a fit of ambition, goes after its themes by telling three stories, each existing within the others.
There's the dull framework of the piece, a book reading by a novelist, Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid), who delivers the beyond-banal lines from his latest novel about "a young struggling writer struggling to make his voice heard."
Hammond narrates the second story, Rory's romance with the fair Dora (Saldana). We see Rory's years of struggle and his discovery of the novel he would ride to fame. And Hammond, giving away the whole novel in one reading -- apparently -- tells of the day Rory meets "The Old Man," the one person who recognized this book as his own, written more than half a century earlier, the one man who knows Rory is a fraud.
Quaid has a nice gravitas but is saddled with a "book" that makes Hammond come off as a lousy storyteller. Cooper nicely underplays Rory's frustrations but does little to suggest a guy wracked with guilt over the lifestyle he has stolen.
As the Old Man, Jeremy Irons is the best natural storyteller in the cast, lending warmth to a generic narration of post-World War II romance, tragedy and the fervor with which he created the novel. If you were setting out to write the perfect fall film, you'd include much that's in The Words -- romance, romantic settings (New York and Paris), mystery, literary intrigue and longing.
But for that perfect film, you'd have to heighten the emotions, make more of the characters and the relationships, find other ways for temptation and retribution to show themselves. And you'd probably trim a lot of words out, especially if the novels within the novel are as weak as the lines the screenwriters have Quaid narrate, the situations Cooper must act out and the script that only the old pro Irons can give a spark of life.