What should we do with “The Words”? I had planned to watch it, but there’s nothing to see. Well, not nothing. There are the eyes and teeth of Bradley Cooper as well as the lissome beauty of Zoe Saldana, who’s usually propping up Cooper’s head or removing something from the oven or wagging her backside in his direction. The movie is about literary fabulists and fantasies, and if all you’ve got for Saldana to do is bake and shake then, I suppose, alas, the fantasy’s been achieved.
But “The Words” aspires to depths greater than the sex we never see these two have. There’s nothing for the eye to do while the ear fills with the banalities of two streams of narration, one by Dennis Quaid, the other by Jeremy Irons, all of it built around a lie. It seems the sudden book-world stardom of Cooper’s character, Rory Jansen, is the product of deception. His first published novel is actually a WWII-era manuscript he discovers in the snazzy leather attaché case his wife, Dora (Saldana), bought for him in Paris. He wrote a couple of novels that failed to captivate a publisher. One executive (Ron Rifkin) says a book of Rory’s smells of truth but reeks of interiority, subtlety, and art. So this might be an allegory for how we in the audience wind up at a movie that smells only of disinfectant.
How fun would “The Words” be were Rory to cynically live up to that generic title? What if he sought to mock the commercial lust and bad taste of some publishers, by passing off the manuscript as his own? What if he were just interesting? For any of that, you should see Richard Gere having a ball as Clifford Irving in the underrated 2007 farce “The Hoax.” Instead, Rory’s deception is made to seem innocent, as if the strings of the cosmos pulled him into a lie. A much riskier movie would ask Rory to enjoy the ruse, to commit fraud rather than drift into it.
But the first-time writer-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal have made a drama of spinelessness, passivity, and mild pretentiousness. The names of John Fante and Ernest Hemingway are dropped, but the movie has none of the terse punch of either writer. Rory’s is a story within a story and within that story lurks a third tale. It would be wonderful to report that one of these plotlines hold the passion or kick a movie like this deserves. But they’re just as dull and mopey as the stuff with Cooper and Saldana.
At one end of the movie, Quaid holds a public reading from the book that gives the movie its title. The scene provides the film with its first line, which is a doozy: “‘The Words.’ By me.” The novel’s introductory sentences sound like stage directions: “The old man stood in the rain. He watched.” You hear them and the subsequent writing and wonder how a book that could double as an instruction manual attract a crowd like the one that is sitting rapt before Quaid in this movie.
Then Olivia Wilde enters the room, and you understand that the manual might be for assembling her. Wilde proceeds to flirt eagerly with the author. Their scenes left me feeling embarrassed, like I was overhearing two account executives pick each other up at an airport Houlihan’s. Anytime she appears on screen, I’m nervous that her eerily attractive face will unzip and a little creature will be sitting at a control panel; I’m nervous I’ve walked into “Men in Black 12.”
At the other end of the film is the wartime stuff about the attaché case and the G.I. (Ben Barnes) who owned it. You can tell it’s the pretend past because it looks uploaded to Instagram. Playing a wizened coot who talks Rory senseless, Irons narrates these scenes. He’s one of those actors — John Malkovich and Christopher Walken are two others — who signal boredom by breaking character. It’s their way of saying to us, “go home!”
You can see the narrative roux that Klugman and Sternthal were going for, something like “The Hours,” an epic of gaseous greatness. The score even tries to whirl and saw and insinuate the way Philip Glass’s does in that movie. But you can make a roux with Virginia Woolf and Michael Cunningham striving to do Woolf, and David Hare straining to do them both. You can’t do that with Fante or Hemingway. You get what Klugman and Sternthal have with “The Words”: lumps.
These two don’t yet have the hefty self-importance or shameless ambition for a movie like “The Hours.” You need experience to achieve hurricane-force pomposity like that. In the meantime, it would be nice to see them go for something basic, something that reeks of interiority, subtlety, and art.
Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris @globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.