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This is the second movie in as many years in which Bradley Cooper has attempted to pass himself off as a writer, and it still just doesn’t work. It’s not even that he doesn’t “look the part” (there are plenty of muscular writers); it’s that he can’t sell that there’s any kind of creative turmoil going on in his head. That’s the least of the problems in The Words, though. Much more pressing are its issues with storytelling, and the fact that it either doesn’t know what it’s trying to say or doesn’t know how to go about saying it.

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Cooper plays Rory Jansen, a struggling writer who discovers a long-lost manuscript for a novel that is so good, it sets his emotions aflame. In a fit of desperation, he passes the manuscript off as his own to a publisher. They love it, publish the book, and it achieves great critical praise and commercial success. And then the true writer of the manuscript (Jeremy Irons) approaches Rory, making him face up to his enormous lie. But the writer, known only as The Old Man, isn’t interested in revealing the truth. He just wants to tell Rory the story of the circumstances surrounding the writing of the book. And all of this is itself a story, being read by author Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) to an audience. Framing the narrative are scenes of admirer Danielle (Olivia Wilde) trying to tease more details of the story out of Clay.

Writers/directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal are playing with intriguing ideas here, even if they may not be entirely sure what those ideas are. There’s something about the nature of inspiration, and how life experiences inform creativity, but all of it is buried in a needlessly convoluted presentation. It’s not clear at all what the point of the story-outside-the-story with Hammond and Danielle is. It seems that the book-within-the-film is a confession of sorts on the part of Hammond. What thematic significance this actually adds to the plot is questionable. But even if it were somehow intelligent, these sections fail simply by being deathly boring. There’s no spark in Quaid and Wilde’s interactions whatsoever.

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When you unpack what actually happens in The Words, clearing away the obfuscating effects of using overlapping timelines and several levels of framing stories, you find its fundamental flaw: this story hinges on just two major beats. There is the choice Rory makes to steal the manuscript, and the choice he makes when confronted with his actions. That’s it. Otherwise, this movie is full of scenes that do very little to advance the plot or deepen our understanding of the characters. In terms of drama, it is stonely inert.

Besides Cooper’s inability to play a creative type, and Quaid and Wilde’s lack of chemistry, none of the other actors do much that’s memorable. As Rory’s wife Dora, Zoe Saldana has a shallow role, only getting to react to various events. She only matters in the ways she matters to Rory, so she isn’t really a character at all. Irons seems to be playing for awards attention, but his long monologues about life and writing aren’t particularly profound or memorable. His fake American accent also slips at the worst, most noticeable times.

The Words is a colossal misfire. What’s worse is that Klugman and Sternthal seem convinced that they’ve tapped into something great here. In case the audience might not understand what’s going on in any given character’s head, Dennis Quaid’s narration is there to spell out every little thing. Subtlety or grace have no place in this film. I generally hate when people use the term, because it’s so often misapplied, but “pretentious” fits best to describe The Words. Ironically for a movie so literary-minded, it fails in almost every way to be persuasively literary.