Bradley Cooper and Zoe Saldana star in The Words. (Jonathan Wenk/CBS Films handout)
The Words is a film based on the old adage that imitation is the sincerest form of plagiarism.
This is a story about the pursuit of art and the fear of failure, and it's a noble attempt, but there's too much going on and the various story lines fail to come together.
The Words begins and ends with brief chapters featuring a celebrated writer (Dennis Quaid). We meet him at a reading, where he opens his new novel and begins to tell the story of a man who longs to write and be successful. But success eludes him.
In this tale-within-a-tale we meet Rory (Bradley Cooper), an aspiring novelist who is doing better with the aspiring than with the novel part. We get to see him as a younger man, moving in with his beautiful girlfriend (Zoe Saldana), but we also see him a bit later on, having to borrow money from his dad.
On a trip to Paris, our hero buys a beautiful old briefcase from an antique store. Therein he finds a copy of somebody's unpublished novel, a manuscript about a man, his wife and their child just after the Second World War. It's a compelling read. As he turns the pages, we see the story brought to life; a second story-within-a-story, for those keeping score.
Rory has the book published under his name. It's a huge success. He is rich and famous. His wife adores him and is proud of him. The problem? Rory recognizes he really doesn't have what it takes to be a great writer. That knowledge casts a pall on everything else in his life.
Then one day, sitting on a park bench, he encounters a chatty old man (Jeremy Irons) who wants to talk about his life ... with his wife and child just after the Second World War. Hmmm ... Rory has been found out by the original writer, a man who makes no demands of him -- just wants Rory to know he knows. Rory searches desperately to figure out how to do the right thing, but life and art, not to mention artifice, are all overlapping.
Somehow, the story ends with Olivia Wilde flirting with Dennis Quaid and then forcing him to draw a line between fact and fiction.
It's confusing. And it's a cluttered story, for no good reason. The performances are good; the central narrative, concerning Bradley Cooper and Zoe Saldana and his struggle with both writing and recognition is engrossing. It's just all the added-on material, set in past or present, that's unwieldy and unnecessary.