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'Words' fails in its attempt at romance, genius

7:16 PM, Sep. 6, 2012
ZoŽ Saldana and Bradley Cooper star in 'The Words.'
ZoŽ Saldana and Bradley Cooper star in 'The Words.' / CBS FILMS
This film image released by CBS Films shows Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Irons in a scene from 'The Words.' (AP Photo/CBS Films, Jonathan Wenk) / AP

ĎThe Wordsí

Star rating:★ ★ ½
Rated: PG-13 for brief strong language and smoking.

This film image released by CBS Films shows Bradley Cooper and ZoŽ Saldana in a scene from 'The Words.' (AP Photo/CBS Films, Jonathan Wenk) / AP

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ďIt was just supposed to be a little book.Ē

Most writers would be thrilled with the attention, with the awards and hyperbole that come with a wildly successful debut novel. Not Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), and for good reason ó he stole the book, every word. And now that he has what he always wanted, can he live with it?

Thatís the ethical conundrum that drives ďThe Words,Ē a lush but fumbling literary melodrama outfitted with an attractive, generations-spanning cast and a puzzle box of three competing narratives.

Jensenís story is told by Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid), a darling of the New York literary scene whose latest novel is about the plagiarist. He narrates Jensenís story, from his first of many publishing rejections to the day Jensen finds a decades-old manuscript left for dust in an old leather satchel in a Parisian antiques store. Jensen gets the story published as romantic fiction. Itís a smashing success.

But ultimately, he canít get away with the fiction of his fiction. Soon, Jensen is being shadowed by a frail old man played by a hobbling, sweater-vested Jeremy Irons. Turns out the forgotten manuscript was his, and the novel that tops the best-seller lists is the story of his life and love for his wife and infant son in Paris at the tail end of World War II.

So, ďThe WordsĒ is a movie about a writer writing about a writer who has stolen another writerís work about his life as a writer. It sounds cerebral on paper, but itís not in practice. Itís easy enough to follow, but the narratives are nesting dolls of decreasing value.

The Irons-narrated Paris scenes are by far the most engrossing; the story is about as deep as a supermarket page-turner, but itís easy to believe such a sepia-toned romance would make for a best-seller.

But thereís no confusing Clay Hammondís cliched prose for literary gold. His story ó the only one apparently couched in the real world ó is the least interesting, and his claim to literary genius the hardest to swallow.

Itís always dangerous ground to create a fictional work that centers on fictional artists who are revered geniuses of their craft. If youíre going to make up a musician, a painter, a writer, then you have to be prepared to show their music, their paintings, their words. When it comes to Jensenís stolen best-seller, the film wisely only shows us obscure flashes of ink-stained manuscript, relying instead on Jeremy Ironsí velvet-voiced narration to sell the image in a way that Hammondís stilted prose utterly fails to do.

Though flawed, the film is a promising debut from first-time directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal. Love went into the production ó thereís care in the framing and cinematography, the scoring, the recurring visual motifs. A little romance takes the movie a long way.

But its romance can also rankle. Take, for instance, its representation of the struggling writer. There are no sleepless nights in drafty garrets, no dinners of ramen noodles, no piles of unpaid bills. Instead, there are handsomely outfitted New York lofts, tailored blazers and Paris honeymoons, all funded on an office mail clerkís salary, apparently.

In the end, the filmís Achillesí heel is an unfortunate one for a serious-minded literary drama about writers ó its screenplay.

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