In 1922, before Ernest Hemingway released his first book, his wife Hadley lost a suitcase full of his unpublished manuscripts while traveling on the Parisian railway. A tragedy for bibliophiles and a source of endless scholarly speculation, the incident also inspires part of the plot of The Words, a mildly compelling drama about literary ambition and authenticity. Appropriately enough, the film disguises the Hemingway-esque anecdote in intriguing layers of narrative.
Much of The Words recounts the marriage and aspirations of Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), a young, would-be writer living a splendidly bohemian life in New York with his fiancée Dora (Zoe Saldana). In an early scene reminiscent of the pilot of HBO's "Girls," Rory's father (J.K. Simmons) withdraws his financial support, sending his son reluctantly into the workforce. Despite a dreary publishing industry job and Dora's distracting charms, Rory finishes his novel and earns a meeting with an agent (Ron Rifkin). He loves the book but sighs that it's unpublishable in a commercial-oriented marketplace.
When the couple takes a trip to Paris, Dora buys him a satchel from an antique store. Inside the satchel, Rory discovers a cache of old papers that turns out to be a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. Rory has no way to track down the author and everyone who reads it assumes it's his work. Should he launch a literary career with a harmless deception?
Jeremy Irons plays a bedraggled but menacing old man who confronts Rory later in the film. "I read your book. I liked it very much," Irons says in a chewy American accent, the friendly words loaded with insinuation. He recounts his personal history in an extensive, sepia-tinged flashback to post-war Paris.
The film offers a third layer of narrative as Rory's story unfolds in the form of chapters read by Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid), a successful, middle-aged author celebrating the publication of a book called The Words. Between public readings of the chapters, Clay chats up a gorgeous, aggressive literary groupie (Olivia Wilde). We're not sure if she has an ulterior motive in cozying up to Clay. Nor do we know if The Words is a novel or nonfiction work.
The last time Cooper played a struggling, aspiring novelist, he gamed the system by taking genius pills in the movie Limitless, a film that played to the actor's usual cocksure persona. In The Words, Cooper plays against type and is the better for it. The actor's swaggering performances often come across as false bravado, but he makes Rory a compellingly insecure character. He frequently puts on a show of false confidence, as if he's willing to live a lie but can't quite pull it off. He also has a warm rapport with Saldana, so it's a shame the film gives her little to do but play the Concerned Wife.
Writer/directors Lee Sternthal and Brian Klugman (son of "The Odd Couple's" Jack Klugman) show a keen understanding of the tense undercurrents in the superficially genteel literary world, particularly the career envy and insistence on authentic authorship. The first two acts brace the audience for a big reveal that ties the narrative strands together, but the final scenes don't have the impact of the rest of the film. A modest little drama for grown-ups, The Words tells a pretty good story, but it's no Hemingway.