There’s a narrative striptease going on in the multilayered The Words. The innermost layer—let’s call it the undies—involves a literary genius (Ben Barnes) and his manuscript, misplaced and then lost in post-World War II France. Wrapped around it is the tale of the attractive literary thief (Bradley Cooper) who finds the manuscript while on his honeymoon in Paris. That would be the sparkly dress. The third layer involves another author (Dennis Quaid). Coy and sleazy in mood, and ultimately woefully obscuring, this final layer is the raincoat a stripper throws on before scampering off the stage, having teased but never getting down to brass tacks.
The sparkly dress segments are the silliest but most fun parts of this movie, which is as good looking but shallow as its multiple leading men. Cooper plays Rory Jansen, who sets up housekeeping in a one-room apartment Manhattan with his girlfriend Dora (Zoë Saldana) and tries to become a writer. He toils away while the lithesome Dora looks on. She’s always there for him, complimenting his great talent and draping herself across him for the ultimate coffee breaks. Time passes. Agents reject Rory for being too “interior.” Instead of suggesting to Dora that they become full time J. Crew models, which clearly is their birthright, Rory gets a job in publishing as a mail boy.
I began to have my doubts about where all this was going when co-directors and co-writers Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal showed Rory gazing like a lovelorn boy at a Hemingway plaque in Paris on his honeymoon. (It’s possible the delight of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris ruined all serious takes on Hemingway worship for me.) Soon thereafter Rory embarks on the dark path of plagiarism, having discovered a manuscript in a leather satchel Dora bought for him in a Paris.
This lost book, typed on yellow pages and unsigned, is a marvelous, life-affirming tearjerker about an unnamed World War II veteran (Barnes, who barely speaks) and a beautiful French girl (Nora Arnezeder). Or at least, that’s what we’re told; I got a distinct whiff of The Bridges of Madison County or maybe Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader from the glimpses Klugman and Sternthal show of the manuscripts pages. Rory loves and admires it so much he eventually retypes it into his computer. “He needed to know what it felt like to touch it [the beauty of those words] if only for a moment,” the narrator says. Soon Rory is holding his first bestseller, to which his lone contribution was the title: The Window Tear. As a crotchety old man (Jeremy Irons, simultaneously the voice of doom and the film’s brightest note) Rory later meets on a park bench says contemptuously, “What the hell is a ‘Window Tear’ anyway?”
(READ: TIME’s Q&A with Jeremy Irons)
For a tale of thieving, The Words plods along. Not that a literary heist is as exciting as a bank robbery, but there’s a remarkable lack of tension in this story. And as plagiarists go, Rory is a dull fellow. He’s so anguished about what he’s done that the notion he’d have committed this literary crime in the first place seems a stretch. And Cooper, such a naturally shifty actor—Limitless was absurd, but played to his strength, that percolating shiny, pretty nastiness—is so hard to buy as an essentially good guy that Rory’s anguish in turn becomes something that’s hard to take seriously. If you want to see a master at the craft of crimes against truth on a page, check out Shattered Glass, Billy Ray’s riveting rendering of the Stephen Glass story, with Hayden Christensen as the famously duplicitous New Republic writer, or The Hoax, which starred Richard Gere as the fabulist biographer of Howard Hughes.
But the lack of villainy in Cooper’s villain is not the only reason The Words fails to sway. Klugman and Sternthal pile on the narrative layers, as if by making the story complicated, they can turn it into something complex. There’s a germ of an idea there, one that would at least tie together the threads in a mildly satisfying way and might justify both Quaid’s and Olivia Wilde’s roles in the story (she plays a smirky Columbia journalism student who may have a bone to pick with Quaid’s smirky character; the final act is one giant smirking turn off), but they leave those threads trailing. I like the notion of trickery that makes the audience question who and what is real, but the coy ambiguity of The Words made me question whether the filmmakers were themselves sure of the answers.
READ: TIME on fabricator Stephen Glass