The good news is that there are at least a few people out there who like The Words. It’s one of those movies with a self-satisfied tone that treats every scene like the profound statement it isn’t. Co-writers/directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal clearly thought they were onto some sort of thrillingly brilliant idea with this tale about a fraud author and a secret genius. What they made is boilerplate Oscar bait. I suppose it’s fair that September should start off with a particularly grating example of that genre. We’ve got a whole lot more of these coming over the next few months and at least they can’t get much worse than this.

The reliably mediocre Dennis Quaid stars as Clay Hammond, a famous author who pops up at a fund-raising event to read from his new book The Words. It’s about a young author (Bradley Cooper) who went through the painful struggle of marrying his beautiful college sweetheart and moving to New York for a job at a publishing house. But he always wanted to be a famous author! Ouch! What a tough life. Fortunately, while vacationing in Paris (again, is he ever paying his dues!) his wife buys him a satchel that contains an unpublished manuscript from the 40s about a love affair between an American soldier and a Parisian waitress who end up losing a baby.

Even though it’s mundane stuff, Cooper instantly recognizes the book as genius and gets it published as his own writing. He becomes a literary sensation overnight and one day an old man (Jeremy Irons) meets him in Central Park, claiming that the book is his own. He doesn’t want to take credit from Cooper, he just wants him to know where the autobiographical story came from and live with the guilt. It tears up Cooper inside and at that point we flash back to Quaid at the reading and a pretty young grad student played by Olivia who crushes on the author and suggests that story of literary fraud might be his own (No! Really?!). Other stuff happens as well, but who cares?

The film slots into the “aren’t we clever” genre of metafiction and suffers from the same problem that afflicts almost all of these stories. If you’re writing something about a work of art so profound that everyone who looks at it is overwhelmed with uncontrollable emotion, never show it. After twenty minutes of everyone tearing up over the power of Cooper’s found manuscript, when we finally hear the post-war melodrama it can’t help but disappoint. Then again, the whole movie is a ludicrous fantasy, so that’s the least of the problems. It’s the type of movie where Irons’ mysterious hermit can vaguely tell Cooper he “lives up north” and the author/fraud has no trouble finding the nameless man when the plot demands it. Everything about the movie is overly calculated to be some sort of “meaningful” experience and yet it fails at the simplest tasks of maintaining internal logic or creating something at least resembling entertainment.

That’s what happens when filmmakers strive to self-consciously create a “great” movie, rather than simply working on a story that they feel compelled to tell and letting others determine how meaningful it is. Bradley Cooper does what he can with the fairly vacant role. He isn’t terrible, he’s just playing a character whose emotional range varies from slightly sad to slightly happy. Irons devours the dialogue as only he can and is a naturally compelling screen presence, but even he can’t turn the writing device character into a flesh and blood person (and he should never be forced to do American accents). Wild is downright creepy as the fan/perverted stalker while Zoe Saldana looks pretty and concerned at the same time as Cooper’s wife. Neither of the women have much of a character beyond being sex objects. Dennis Quaid is, well, just as bland as you’d expect. Yep, the acting can be rough, but that has to be attributed to the cardboard characters as much as the people trying to make them appear like human beings.

Now, The Words isn’t a painful disaster of a movie like say Batman And Robin. However, when trash turns out to be trash it’s far less upsetting than movies like this that so clearly want to be art and fail miserably. It’s tough to watch a pair of ambitious filmmakers mount a slick production with star faces and yet fail so thoroughly in their attempt to do something meaningful. The Words is a bad movie, but thankfully at least one that will disappear quickly. It won’t be a blockbuster or a misinterpreted critical darling. It’ll just come and go, eventually living on Netflix to be discovered by light night viewers who love to ironically laugh at painful schmaltz. This thing at least has plenty of that.

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