History is littered with lost stories. Every writer knows the cautionary tale of Ernest Hemingway, whose first wife packed every word he wrote before 1922 in a briefcase and lost it on a train.
There's the sad story of John Kennedy Toole, who took the rejection of his manuscript A Confederacy of Dunces so hard he committed suicide in 1969. His mother found it and published it 11 years later. It won the Pulitzer and a cult following,
And just a few weeks ago, Jack Kerouac's quintessential American novel On the Road was finally released as a film. Yet Kerouac wrote The Sea is My Brother 14 years before On the Road. It was discovered in 1992 by his brother-in-law and released this year.
The Words, an original film written and directed by debutants Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, leans heavily on the "what if" scenarios mentioned above and takes it a few steps further. What if someone found Hemingway's lost novel on that train and published it as their own? What if they became famous while the real author faded into obscurity?
Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) is a struggling writer who's determined to make it, even in the face of multiple rejections. His loving wife Dora (Zoe Saldana) supports him financially. His father (J. K. Simmons) urges him to get a job and make writing a hobby.
On a trip to Paris, Jansen buys a vintage satchel and discovers an old manuscript called The Window Tears hidden inside. Dora mistakes it for his - and thinks it's genius. Rory can't resist. He gets it published under his name and becomes the toast of the literary world.
Before Jansen becomes the telltale sign of a plagiarist - a one-hit wonder - he's confronted by the book's real author (Jeremy Irons). Never mind. The old man is over it, somewhat absurdly, and is happy to let Jansen continue his charade. As if those first two acts weren't far-fetched enough, the final act makes a sharp right turn with a surprise twist, but it's so clumsily written - ironically - it instead sends The Words into a downward spiral.
It's set some time later, when celebrated author Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) is reading a passage of his hit novel The Words to an appreciative audience. It's an exact account of the plagiarism story that's just played out on screen.
Was it all just fiction? A story within a story - and hence a film within a film? Or is Clay the older version of Jansen himself, finally coming clean?
Confused? You wouldn't be the only one.
The Words comes with solid themes about authorship, plagiarism, living a lie and lives lived unfulfilled. Those are good drivers of great storytelling. Yet Klugman and Sternthal's largely derivative narrative believes in its own self-importance and gets progressively entangled in its own metanarrative, as if it were a modern day Great Gatsby.
They also deliver such a dreary, flair-less script that fails to live up to the acclaimed prose of either writer. Witness its witless title The Words, for example.
That said, the casting is perfect. Irons stands tall as the gruff, salty old scribe and Cooper conveys the ambitious opportunist nicely. Olivia Wilde is terrific in a small but key role as a literary groupie who calls Clay's bluff.
Yet The Words comes off as pretentious and rather lowbrow, and pales in comparison with great films about writing such as Capote, Adaptation and Sunset Boulevard or plagiarism films such as The Player and Shattered Glass. Maybe, one day, we'll get that film about Hemingway and his lost manuscript on the train. And that would be something.