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The Words

Three intertwined stories examine literary truth in this rather lightweight drama

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Plagiarism is a lively topic this summer, but this lightweight drama from co-directors/writers Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal won't add much heft to the discussion. This tale of stolen words is too gimmicky, with its various contrivances creating more head-scratching than soul-searching.

We're introduced to The Words when a writer named Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) walks onstage at a literary event and begins reading his book, titled The Words, to an appreciative audience. That story then comes to life on screen — it's the tale of Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), his supportive wife (Zoe Saldana) and their charming Brooklyn loft, where Rory stays up late penning not-very-good fiction. He dreams of publishing his "meaningful" novel, but it's roundly rejected ("too interior").

Then, on a trip to Paris, Jansen discovers a manuscript hidden in an old briefcase. Late one night, he types it verbatim into his laptop. Jansen's wife finds the story on his computer and raves about it, and Jansen — making what we know is a Very Bad Decision — submits it to a publisher. Of course, it's a huge success, and our hollow author happily surfs the fame-and-fortune wave. Until a cranky old man (Jeremy Irons) shows up, with a story of his own. Story No. 3, which we see unfold on screen as well, is an account of an American G.I. (Ben Barnes) who, during World War II, meets — and loses — a woman in Paris.

To recap: This is a film about a man reading a book about a guy who steals a book that another dude wrote. The film cuts between the three narratives, and all that double-framing and jumping around takes its toll. Quaid's Hammond remains a cipher, even more so after the directors set him up with a fawning fan (Olivia Wilde). It's not clear whether Hammond's eponymous book is fact or fiction (whatever it is, it's not very well written), whether his success is rightly deserved, or what any of this means vis-à-vis ownership of lives and the stories they contain. Among those at the screening with me, the film did generate some post-screening discussion about what might have transpired in the film and why. So there's another layer about "truth" you can add to this nesting doll of a film.

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