"The Words" is a literary nesting doll where each hidden layer is another author's story. The problem is that the further the script by directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal moves from the center, the weaker the plot and characters get.
What starts out as a poignant cautionary tale of the power and obsession that comes with the creative process slowly reveals itself to be little more than a so-so mystery that leads to an unsatisfactory ending.
The title refers to a work of fiction penned by the mysterious Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid). Through a book reading -- that allows for the film's never-ending narration -- Hammond reveals that his much-heralded work is the story of a young and ambitious writer, Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), who, in an act of creative desperation, passes off an old manuscript he's found as his own work. Jansen appears to have committed the perfect writing crime until the real author, identified only as The Old Man (Jeremy Irons), shows up to confront him.
Klugman and Sternthal skillfully show the addictive nature of the creative process through The Old Man's story. Each word, line and paragraph of his story about love and loss comes with a tiny bit of his soul. This is not writing, but it's the unconscious state of giving into the power of words and letting them assume a life of their own.
The script also shows how the desire to share such an inviting addiction makes good men do bad things. Cooper turns in a convincing performance as he takes his character from despair to delight to devastation. Irons is masterful as the writer cursed by the creative Muses. And Zoe Saldana makes the most of her limited role. But they are part of the inner layers that work so well.
It's the outer layer of this tale-within-a-tale-within-a-tale that falls short.
Just like his character, Quaid seems to do little more than read lines of the story. It doesn't help that Olivia Wilde is cast as a mysterious young woman who forces Hammond to face his own writing demons. Wilde's casting is so out of context that instead of being the catalyst for the literary truth, she's more of a plot decoy.
The main point of "The Words" is that there's a great responsibility with any writing that continues to the last period. Klugman and Sternthal failed to carry out their responsibilities to the end, which leaves this film without the final giant exclamation point it needed.
"The Words," rated PG-13 for language, smoking. Stars Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Irons, Dennis Quaid, Olivia Wilde. Directed by Brian Klugman, Lee Sternthal. Running time: 96 minutes. Grade: C+ Theaters and times for this movie | Other movie reviews
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, email@example.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.