It would be easy to come away from "The Words" with the impression that writing is a stiff, musty line of work — all grand ballrooms, solemn readings, and blue-blooded accents, a veritable Titanic of pretensions. This would be a mistake. The only sinking ship here is the film itself.
Writing is rarely glamorous. The snows of Kilimanjaro fall somewhere above my pay grade, and the closest I've come to sipping absinthe in a Parisian brasserie is thanks to Woody Allen. But it's surely not the burden borne by the film's three tortured novelists, played by Jeremy Irons, Dennis Quaid, and Bradley Cooper (in descending order of grizzled misanthropy). News flash, guys: you don't work in a damn sweatshop.
Convoluted structure and bland aesthetic aside, "The Words" grates because it evinces only the barest understanding of the writer's life, preferring instead the most worn clichés. Inspiration and bursts of fancy — "The words simply poured out of him, a stream he could not control nor question" — follow from grief, misery, destructive rage. Paralyzing self-doubt — "I'm not who I thought I was!" — comes after a colleague's success. Fame — "I've got to start reading my own interviews" — breeds arrogance. Written and directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternhal, "The Words" seems less a portrait of writing's glories and frustrations than an impoverished fantasy of them, never remotely as compelling or profound as it pretends to be.
In rare moments, "The Words" succeeds in giving an honest account of the publishing economy, from the demands of editors and prospective agents to the discovery of a masterpiece. When Rory Jansen (Cooper), the protagonist of Clay Hammond's (Quaid) latest novel, finds another writer's (Irons) manuscript in a second-hand valise, the montage of turning pages and typewritten words that follows may not be particularly cinematic, but Cooper's sighs, the trembling of his hands, hint at the powerful immediacy of greatness.
A fleeting hint it is. "The Words" fails to grasp the telling details that might make its flat, dour tale begin to sing: that praise, for the writer, is not about being loved but about loving yourself; that terror is not, as Rory has it, finding out that "nothing's right," but the unrelenting blankness of the page. Plagiarism, the writer's starkest crime, is explained as though a mere current of emulation, the finest form of flattery. "He didn't know why he was doing it," Clay says of Rory. "He just wanted to feel the words pass through his fingers, through his mind."
This deficit of imagination would be an absolvable sin if "The Words" were not so resolutely committed to its own importance, full of platitudes about the power of language — "words ruin everything," lose their way, or take on pain, depending on the screenwriters' whims. In the end, the movie's only authentic piece of wisdom is one I wish the filmmakers themselves had heeded, if only to animate an otherwise lifeless piece of work. "At some point you have to choose between life and fiction," Clay tells an admirer. "The two are very close, but they never actually touch."