Fiction films about filmmakers rarely get it right. Do novels about novel-writers do any better? Partly set in postwar Paris and shot in Montreal, “The Words” is not adapted from Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Les Mots.” Nonetheless, an autobiographical element lurks to link three fictional fiction writers in a flat script by co-writers, co-directors Lee Sternthal and Brian Klugman. An executive producer, Bradley Cooper stars as an aspiring New York novelist who comes upon a lost anonymous manuscript whose yellowed pages will propel his career, rather like those neuro-super-charger pills did for the aspiring New York novelist Cooper played in “Limitless.” In nearly wordless flashbacks, a young American woos a young French woman in 1944. They wed. Their young daughter dies. He writes his first novel about all this, then his wife leaves the typescript in a satchel on a train. Years later, Rory Jansen (Cooper) honeymoons in Paris. His wife (Zoë Saldana) buys him an old satchel. Tucked inside and overlooked for decades is the never-published novel of The Young Man (Ben Barnes). Rory copies it. Takes credit. Receives accolades. The Old Man (Jeremy Irons) turns up. Introduces himself. Is it too late to issue a spoiler alert? All of the above transpires in a public reading of excerpts from a new novel. Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) begins: “‘The Words.’ By me.” And gets a knowing laugh from an admiring Manhattan audience. The film sets up these revelations with no inventiveness. An artless twist at the end is triggered by a careerist Columbia University grad student, played as noxious cliche by Olivia Wilde. The film is not too concerned with writing. The book at the center of the plot is inconsistently called a “novel” and “stories.” A publisher rejects one of Rory’s early efforts: “It’s so interior. It’s artistic.” “The Words” is blameworthy on neither count. The writing and stealing of fiction prompts existential lines about living: “I’m not who I thought I was and I am terrified I never will be,” along with banalities about how we “make choices in life” and “live with them” and must “choose between life and fiction.” Pithy dialogue at other points hints at deeper, if downbeat ideas: “I do not know how things happen,” pleads Rory. “Things are just things,” intones The Old Man. One novelist will conclude there is “No moral” in one of the novels framed by the film. The filmmakers do not say as much. With Nora Arnezeder, Michael McKean, John Hannah, J.K. Simmons, Ron Rifkin, Željko Ivanek. 97m. (Bill Stamets)
“The Words” opens Friday.