*** (out of four)
It’s been years, maybe around the time of “Wedding Crashers,” since the once-charismatic "PECLB0000005706">Bradley Cooper (“The Hangover”) truly held the screen rather than merely existing on it as someone who happens to look like a leading man.
The drought is over. In “The Words,” Cooper captures Rory Jansen’s outer relief and inner stress as he achieves commercial and critical success by claiming another writer’s work as his own. It almost seems like a victimless crime; Rory finds old pages in a worn-down bag that his wife (Zoe Saldana) buys him in Paris, and the story, without any clue about its origins, contains all the brilliance and promise Rory cannot create himself. Who could turn down a shortcut to fame and fortune?
Compared to the bland, familiar trajectory of “Limitless,” Cooper’s other movie about a writer cutting corners, “The Words” elegantly crafts a story within a story within a story. Rory’s actually the character in a book by unimpressive writer Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid), who’s reluctant to confront his own past despite the obvious affections of a Columbia grad student (Olivia Wilde). Clay’s tale slows the pace of “The Words” when an old man (Jeremy Irons) helps Rory understand at length where the mysterious, now-plagiarized work came from, and the film takes a long time to draw out writers’ high emotional stakes as they succeed or fail in bringing something that may or may not be real to life on the page.
Co-writers/co-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal opt for an open-ended conclusion that is a bit of a cop-out to the question of how people can move on from big mistakes. The filmmakers also traffic in fortune cookie-esque lines about choices, consequences and the past without considering the way controversy often helps book sales, rather than hurting them.
Yet “The Words” confronts the devastation felt when you fear you are incapable of becoming the person you always thought you would be, and delves into how easy it could be to cut a corner to ensure a hobby becomes a profession. Consequently, falling in love with the page becomes a romance almost as tragic as one built on deception, though both seem to have the same result: loneliness that finds no secure future in living a lie.
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