Identity theft gets a fresh spin in The Words, an ensemble drama exploring moral crimes in the literary sphere. While I wouldn't blame you for leaping to the likes of James Frey and non-fiction bestsellers built on juicy lies, The Words concerns a wholesale act of plagiarism, the purloined novel in question having taken inspiration from its true author's life. Or maybe none of this ever happened: maybe it just makes for a good story, or a good metaphor for untrustworthy character. And to go one "meta," we actually know it never happened: it's only a movie we're watching. Wow. Deep.
The film's framing device finds bestselling author Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) conducting an extensive public reading from his latest novel before offering private spoilers to an audience of one: hot literary groupie Daniella (Olivia Wilde). Hammond's story, which forms most of the film, tells of Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), whose dreams of artistic and popular success as a novelist have been repeatedly stymied.
Told he's talented but unpublishable, Rory settles into a mailroom job at a publishing firm so he can marry his sweetheart Dora (Zoe Saldana). But when they honeymoon in Paris, Rory accidentally gets his hands on a long-lost unpublished manuscript, a soulful novel that shames Rory in its brilliance: first because he could never write something that elegant, and then because Dora reads it and professes deeper love due to her husband's unexpected depths.
Of course, Rory cannot bring himself to confess the novel's origin; instead, he offers the book to his boss for a second opinion. Suddenly, Rory finds a lucrative contract under his nose, and he makes a Faustian bargain with himself, seizing his dreams by selling someone else's soul. That's all well and good until an old man (Jeremy Irons) shows up to claim authorship of the now widely acclaimed bestseller. The old man has his own story to tell, of his younger self (Ben Barnes), the novel's origins in tragedy, and how the book was lost in the first place.
Despite the Russian-nesting-doll structure, The Words is a fairly straightforward yarn with bluntly articulated themes of Regret, Guilt, Misplaced Trust, and the Vagaries of Fate. The direction by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal (also the screenwriters) is sturdy enough, as are the performances by Irons (at his canniest) and Cooper (resonant in his moral rottenness). But while Marcelo Zarvos' Philip Glass-lite score tries to convince us we're watching The Hours, it's hard to care about much of anything in this work of fiction about a work of fiction that's either a couched confession or an artful "lie that tells the truth."
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]