In 1922, Ernest Hemingway's wife Hadley was traveling from Paris to Switzerland by train when she made a rather historic mistake. Getting up briefly to buy a bottle of water, she left behind a suitcase containing virtually all of her husband's fiction writing up to that point. When she returned, the suitcase was gone. It was never recovered.
That's one version of the story, anyway. Hemingway's lost suitcase is part of our literary lore, and it serves as the inspiration — I use that word loosely — for The Words, an achingly dull film that seems a lot longer than its hour-and-a-half running time.
The movie begins in the present day with a public reading by author Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) from his new novel, also called The Words. As Clay reads, we flash into the story of his book, which is about another author, Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper.)
In Clay's story, Rory is an aspiring novelist in New York City whose first book has been rejected by every publisher in town. This isn't surprising. As played by Cooper, Rory doesn't inspire confidence. He's a self-absorbed sort, with an adoring wife (Zoe Saldana) and a dad (J.K. Simmons) who's footing the bills while Rory indulges in his artistic struggle. (“I have to pay my dues!” Rory whines. “No, I have to pay your dues,” says dad.)
Rory's problems are solved when he discovers an old manuscript tucked away in a vintage leather briefcase. The story, set in postwar France, brings poor Rory to tears — it's clearly a work of genius. After some rote dilemma-wrestling, Rory submits the story as his own and quickly wins fame and fortune.
Inevitably, Rory is confronted by the actual author of the story, an understandably bitter fellow referred to as The Old Man and played by Jeremy Irons. Sitting on a park bench, the Old Man tells Rory the story behind his story, and we flash back yet again to 1940s Paris.
So, to recap: The film is telling us a story about Clay telling a story about Rory hearing a story from the Old Man, who wrote the story. And I didn't even mention the bit with Olivia Wilde as a sexy grad student.
The good news is that by this point you'll be far too bored to get confused. The direction, by the newcomer team of Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, is surprisingly inert. Dramatic things happen in The Words, but there's no real drama. The contemporary scenes are draggy and bland, and the sepia-toned flashback sequences are too stagey to pack any emotional punch.
The casting doesn't help, either. Cooper doesn't come across as a tortured writer; he comes across as a handsome actor playing a tortured writer. Irons has similar problems, and he's further hindered by bad old-age makeup. Quaid seems mostly disinterested.
On the plus side, the script has some interesting elements of historical intrigue, and you can play spot-the-Hemingway-reference to pass the time. Zoe Saldana brings weight to the few scenes she's afforded in her bystander role.
The movie perks up a little toward the end. The ambiguous final scenes suggest a thread that would tie all three authors together, but only if you don't think it through too far. It doesn't work, but it almost works, and in a movie like this, you have to take whatever you can get.