A cautionary tale against plagiarism with pretensions to The Hours and The English Patient, Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal’s The Words folds narratives on top of narratives in a vain attempt to mask the fact that there’s nothing to read between its graceless lines. Framed by author Clay (Dennis Quaid) reading from his titular novel, the plot concerns the odyssey of Rory (Bradley Cooper), a struggling novelist who finds that his own work is uncommercial for being “artistic, subtle”—keywords the film rightly decries as an anathema in today’s marketplace. But he lucks out when, while honeymooning in Paris with wife Dora (Zoë Saldana), he picks up a briefcase that happens to contain an aged manuscript. Jealous of this found work’s brilliance, Rory transcribes it word for word, and when Dora finds it on his laptop and extols it as a masterful expression of Rory’s true self, his descent into plagiaristic shame begins. Soon, he’s a darling of the literary world—until, of course, the work’s true author, the Old Man (Jeremy Irons, in shabby clothes and a shabbier beard), materializes like a ghost and, on a park bench beside Rory, confronts the phony about his imitative crime.
That conversation leads to extended flashbacks to the Old Man’s youth in Paris during and after World War II, when love, marriage, parenthood, tragedy, and fate conspired to leave him alone and novel-less, a sequence that the directors shoot in softly lit sepia-toned hues almost as overdone as the romantically melancholy score that crowds its way into every scene. Cooper embodies Rory’s ethical crisis with dull roboticism, while Saldana is asked only to smile winningly or fume sadly. That leaves Irons to steal the show during the film’s second half, chewing scenery with a verve made possible by the fact that Klugman and Sternthal’s script gives him nothing but profound Big Statements to make, so that by the time he finally enlightens Rory with “We all make choices in life. The hard thing is living with them,” The Words has devolved into a goofy second-rate approximation of an awards-baiting prestige picture. The desire to court profundity through thematic exclamations rather than nuanced drama is even more pronounced during Clay’s own story, which involves a seductive grad student (Olivia Wilde) who suspects the titular novel is autobiographical and asks Clay, ultimately, “Life or fiction: Which do you choose”—a question the film doesn’t answer in a lame bid for intriguing ambiguity that comes off as merely the final example of this morality play’s emptiness.