The story-within-a-story-within-a-story structure of "The Words" is an interesting dodge, applying thick layers of shimmering artifice to cover up the movie's lack of depth.
There's no moral to the story, author Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) tells a hot young woman (Olivia Wilde) he encounters at a reading of his latest book. Alas, he's right, and that revelation feels like a cheat after everything we've seen in this drama, which generated a lot of buzz at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
The story Hammond tells is that of Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), a would-be New York author who marries his girlfriend, Dora (Zoë Saldana), and struggles to sell his "angry young man" novel. On their honeymoon in Paris, she buys him a beat-up leather case she finds in an antique store. In that case, he discovers the yellowing pages of a typed manuscript a tragic post-World War II love story so beautifully written that it haunts Rory after he reads it.
Rory, believing the manuscript is better than anything he'll ever write, decides to type it all on his computer, just "to feel the words coming from his fingers." When Dora reads it, and thinks it's the most touching thing Rory ever wrote, he gives in and submits the book to a book agent (Zeljko Ivanec), and soon Rory becomes the toast of New York's literary scene.
Then along comes an old man (Jeremy Irons, giving the movie's one soulful performance), who tells him the manuscript was his work. It's based, he tells Rory, on his experiences living in France after the war which we see in flashbacks, with Ben Barnes as Irons' character and French actress Nora Arnezeder as his true love.
What does the old man want from Rory? And what is Rory willing to do to soften his guilt? And how does the old man's romance relate to Rory and Dora's or to Clay's personal story?
The writing-directing team of Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal (whose previous credits include contributing to "Tron: Legacy") slide effortlessly through the three nesting stories, smoothly moving from nostalgic Paris for the old man's young flashbacks to New York grit for Rory and Dora's early romance and Manhattan glitz in Rory's ascension and Clay's comfortable life.
The filmmakers provide style to burn, but not a lot of substance. With stiff dialogue and opaque performances by Quaid, Cooper and Barnes, there's not much chance for us to get deep into the characters' souls. "The Words" tells a good story, but it doesn't show us anything meaningful.
A writer wrestles with his conscience, and with a ghost of the past, in this slick but superficial drama.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, Sept. 7.
Rating • PG-13 for brief strong language and smoking.
Running time • 96 minutes.