It is rare for Hollywood to tackle an issue such as plagiarism without resorting to beating its chest with self-righteous, bombastic indignation. Having a literary indie loaded with A-listers should be a means of avoiding such a pitfall.
Alas, The Words – the clunkily titled feature debut from Brian Klugman and his creative partner Lee Sternthal – manages to be both leaden in its delivery and dreadfully pious in a business that's perennially troubled (or riddled) with accusations of literary and creative theft.
The directors, who co-wrote the screenplay, boldly opt for an interweaving mesh of narratives with four different authors to focus on.
To begin, we have Dennis Quaid's booming narrator reading from his tome (The Words) to a bookstore-signing crowd, with an overzealous student, played by Olivia Wilde, waiting to pounce.
Inside that story lies the struggling writer Rory (Bradley Cooper) who, while in Paris with his wife (for a while Cooper's real-life squeeze, Zoe Saldana), comes across a manuscript (in a heavily referenced nod to Hemingway), which he palms off as his own. Then there's the real writer, aka Old Man (Jeremy Irons) – and the young, romanticised version of him (within that story).
With four tales competing for screen time – beyond the chief protagonist (which is Cooper's Rory, in case you're wondering) – only a miracle of precision timing could make it work. Despite its obvious expertise behind the lens, a workmanlike script and those moralistic leanings simply make it a chore to sit through. Save perhaps for Irons wringing out the best of a bad job, the remaining cast appear neither credible nor likeable.
Cooper seems to have missed a beat in an otherwise interesting career trajectory away from The Hangover series. Unlike the dopey character of Eddie in last year's Limitless (which also ripped off the writer's block idea but to better effect), Cooper as Rory has been stripped of his charm, semi-possessed in his struggle to find success.
Whether ambitious or simply desperate, we don't warm up to those beady eyes sizing up the prize. Nor do we care about how he will resolve his guilt for the crime. Perhaps it's simply that theft is exactly that, plain and simple. And given the nature of it here, it's hard to consider such a character deserving a clean slate.
Cooper's other forthcoming work – in David O Russell's highly anticipated Silver Linings Playbook – is of far greater consequence, however, suggesting this is a misfire, and one that can be forgiven and forgotten.