This shouldn't work.
A story within a story within a story . . . a series of life-altering coincidences . . . the kind of sweeping melodrama that belongs in the late-night lineup of Turner Classic Movies. The Words should be cloaked in cobwebs, creaking and squeaking, laughable.
Amazingly, though, Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, cowriters and codirectors of The Words, have the audacity - and the skill sets - to pull this all off. They wrest emotional truth out of hokum. They also wrest intelligent, nuanced performances from their cast:
Bradley Cooper, who stars as the struggling New York writer Rory Jansen, has never been so good, so compelling. Zoe Saldana, shedding her blue epidermis of Avatar, is grounded in the real world, in a relationship that has its ups, its downs, its desperation. And Jeremy Irons, aged-up perhaps too much to play, yes, "the Old Man," is riveting nonetheless - and devilishly mischievous. A mystery figure who sits down on a park bench alongside Rory, now the author of a best-seller called The Window Tears (the Old Man mocks that dreadful title), Irons is a stranger who, flashing back decades into the past, shakes Rory's world to its core.
The Words is a movie about ambition and art, about a guy who dreams of success, who works hard and types hard, but who hasn't been having much luck. And then luck falls in his lap: On a honeymoon in Paris, Saldana's Dora finds an old leather satchel. Back at home in their Brooklyn apartment, Rory discovers a hidden compartment in the briefcase, and a tattered manuscript. He starts to read it. The words come alive. It is one of the best things he has ever read.
And then he finds himself copying the novel onto his computer, word for word. His wife reads it. Then his agent. And then a publisher. And then everybody.
Early in The Words, Rory Jansen is accepting a prestigious award. After the dinner he and Dora, dressed to the nines, climb into a limo. He lowers his head onto her lap - it is a moment of beautiful tenderness, but also something else. The guilt of a liar, a plagiarist, is weighing on him - he wants to burrow into the folds of her gown and disappear.
Klugman and Sternthal (who, along with Cooper, are childhood friends, and Philly boys) place their tale of intellectual-property theft inside the pages of another book, by another best-selling scribe. Dennis Quaid is Clay Hammond, a seasoned writer whose new book, The Words, is the story of Rory and Dora Jansen and that magical manuscript. Clay is at a reading, the audience intent on his every word - particularly Olivia Wilde, as a smart, seductive literary groupie - recounting the moment when the Old Man and Rory meet. And then we're back in Paris, just after World War II, when a young American soldier (Ben Barnes) falls in love with a cafe waitress (Nora Arnezeder). They live together in a basement flat. They have a baby. Something terrible happens.
Oh, the drama!
Cooper played a writer, too, in last year's adrenaline rush of a movie, Limitless. That guy found a different way to get around the arduous grind of bringing words to life - he took drugs. In The Words, he just takes another man's work and calls it his own.
The consequences of Rory Jansen's actions may not measure up in the end - you could argue that Klugman and Sternthal go easy on their protagonist, and that forgiveness and death come too conveniently in their narrative. But The Words resonates - richly, remarkably.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.