By Bill Wine
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – To steal from one writer is plagiarism, goes the proverb; to steal from many is research.
Well, what the novelist played by Bradley Cooper does in The Words is unmistakably plagiarism.
A completed and apparently abandoned or lost manuscript falls in his lap, as it were, and he submits it to his publisher. And it eventuates into the kind of influential best-seller that brings him fame and wealth.
That is, until the actual author turns up.
That’s the premise of this ethical-exploration melodrama about storytelling and literature.
Cooper plays Rory Hansen, who made his name with a debut novel but has been struggling to come up with an encore. On his honeymoon in Paris, his wife, played by Zoe Saldana, buys him a supposedly empty satchel.
But inside is an unsigned manuscript for an unpublished novel. He proceeds to retype it, hoping that the process of osmosis might help him get his creative juices flowing.
Then he reads what he has typed and loves it. As does his wife, whom he doesn’t reveal the truth to and who immediately exhibits a heightened respect for his talent, which flatters him no end.
She suggests that he submit the work to his publisher. Which he does. And before you can say “imposter,” he’s collecting awards and doing readings of “The Window Tears” at book stores.
All of the above is explained to us by a novelist, played by Dennis Quaid, who is reading from his own novel, “The Words,” which includes the arrival of the original author, played by Jeremy Irons, who has his own story to tell because the book is actually about his tragic life and he hasn’t written anything since.
The guilt-ridden Hansen feels compassion for the legitimate author and tries to make amends, but…
The debuting writer-directors, Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal (boyhood buddies of Cooper’s), who wrote the story for Tron: Legacy, have woven a narrative tapestry – with a complex structure that is triple-tiered and flashback-laden — that gets our attention early on but that ends up being wildly uneven: we’re not always grateful when one story interrupts another and our emotional investment wavers, sometimes at unfortunate junctures. Yes, we admit it, we yearn for the simplicity and clarity of a single narrative.
Instead, by the time all three stories have been more or less resolved, we find ourselves wondering whether the film and its audience would have been better off with a more focused exploration of just one of the three thrusts.
Still, especially for those interested in the world of creative “wordsmithing,” this is a challenging and provocative film if not an ultimately satisfying one.
Cooper, also serving as an executive producer, leads a solid ensemble cast, but it’s Irons who contributes the film’s most compelling and poignant characterization: if the whole film registered with his kind of authority and skill, the film would leave much more of an imprint.
Still, it’s a serious-minded film that falls a tad short in the execution of its ambitious concept but not so much that it squanders the respect it’s already earned.
So we’ll plagiarize 2-1/2 stars out of 4 for a story-within-a-story-within-a-story drama that is absorbing and stimulating even if it does frustrate and complicate. The Words is still worth a thousand pictures.