The TV ads for “The Words” suggest a thriller, which it is definitely not. In ways, that's a relief, since the summer releases included enough thrillers to hold me until the cows come home. Still, beware: This debut feature from writing/directing team Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal is really a Nicholas Sparks-style romance, with a dubious overlay of narrative trickery.
The clearest way to outline the story is to start from the beginning — not the beginning of the story, but the beginning of the movie. (You'll see.)
In the opening scenes we meet Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) as he struts out on stage to read the first two parts of his new novel. While he speaks, the action is played out on screen, with his voice or image occasionally intruding.
The main characters in his book — hopeful young couple Rory (Bradley Cooper) and Dora (Zoe Saldana) — are moving into a loft in New York. Rory wants to be a novelist; his writing is essentially being subsidized by Zoe's paycheck and loans from his dad (J.K. Simmons). Despite positive feedback from agents, it's clear that his book isn't strong enough to achieve publication without a prior track record.
Then one day, Rory discovers a typed manuscript hidden in a briefcase Dora bought for him in a Paris antique shop. It's a novel called “The Window Tear,” and it's apparently so damned good that no one can put it down after reading the first sentence. Rory passes it off as his own: Soon he's up to his neck in awards, fame and fortune.
And this monster hit will enable him to sell his “earlier work.” Career launched!
But he is accosted in a park by — as the film calls him — the Old Man (Jeremy Irons). After some verbal sparring, the O.M. makes it clear that it's his book; he wrote it 60 years before and lost it, which helped end his marriage. Of course, as the Old Man reveals his history to Rory, we see it played out on screen, with Ben Barnes portraying the Young Man (or, as I like to think of him, the Young Old Man).
So we have Hammond reading a story about Rory, in which the Old Man is telling Rory a story (which itself has some brief flashbacks).
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, four — count 'em, four — layers of narrative! It's postmodern! Maybe even postpostmodern! Four layers may be a record, but I don't think so: “The Prestige” might match it, or the ’40s films “Passage to Marseilles” and “The Locket.”
By the end, an ambitious Columbia grad student (Olivia Wilde) is interrogating Hammond, trying to determine if his book is autobiographical (an issue which, wisely, is never clearly resolved). She comes on like a cub reporter from the Columbia student newspaper who has received her journalism training from reading DC Comics.
The narrative tricks have some problems. Can we believe that anyone who stole a manuscript would write a book about someone stealing a manuscript? Or that Rory sits rapt, listening to the Old Man telling his history — which is supposed to be the same story fictionalized in the book Rory stole?
Is any of this stuff reliable? One scene, in which we're told that the Young Man's wife knew only one word of English, is immediately followed by another in which she speaks English fluently. It may be the Old Man making a little joke, or it could be our one deliberate hint that none of what we see is trustworthy, but it feels like a screw up.
I'm a sucker for this kind of time/memory manipulation, but there's not much purpose for it in “The Words.” At its heart, this is a romantic drama, told in several connected storylines, but that's all it is. And it fails on that level, simply because Rory isn't just a plagiarist, but a petulant jerk.
He's not a guy you want to root for.