The Words doesn’t offer a great story, but it does offer a passably captivating one, the kind for which listeners/viewers will literally lean forward in their seat in anticipation of the next hairpin turn. Bradley Cooper plays Rory, a budding novelist who, like a lot of movie authors, we’re repeatedly informed is brilliant without receiving proof. Alas, his brilliance is the arty type that doesn’t sell books. While eking out a life as a lowly publishing house cart-pusher with a grotesquely supportive hotcha wife (Zoe Saldana), he happens upon an old, unpublished manuscript. The prose is the kind that arrests elites and plebeians alike, the tale tragic and trenchant. On a series of whims, he decides to pass it off as his own, hoping that one day an old man—say, the one eventually played by Jeremy Irons underneath amusing pancake makeup—won’t materialize to reveal himself as the true author.
The meat of the story is actually a film-within-a-film which dramatizes the latest work by another novelist, Clay (Dennis Quaid), who—shades of Pootie Tang’s Bob Costas-co-starring bookends—spends the film reading a mere passage to an auditorium of fans, only to plow through the entire thing shy of the climax. You won’t get a backslap for guessing who Clay turns out to be. But good storytelling should never get ruined by ruined twists—as anyone who’s ever had a Breaking Bad episode spoilered will attest—and The Words is reasonably gripping as a simple case of what-comes-next, paired with Cooper’s deft ability at remaining consistently sympathetic. (Mostly by being droopy-dogged, but still.)
Of course, what comes last is a muddled anticlimax, with scribes/directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal—cashing in on the story credit on Tron: Legacy they shared with two others—writing themselves square into a wall. The Words ends with a rather obvious lesson on piracy, which is doubly a shame, as the bulk of it poses some underasked questions on the nature of success, failure and artistic limitations. It often does this by artlessly putting such queries directly into the actor’s mouths, but it’s rare for a star-studded middlebrow drama to ask them at all.