The drama "The Words" is not a film noir but hinges on the kind of incident that defines that genre: An average man makes one bad decision that sends him into a spiral of doom. Except instead of a dame inspiring that decision, it's an old manuscript. And instead of spiraling into doom, our hero spirals into some guilt and self-questioning. And instead of being a dark examination of human frailty, it's romanticized claptrap.
It's also oddly circuitous for no great reason, with the bulk of the movie being a story-within-a-story: At some auditorium, author Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) reads from his novel "The Words" and we see the tale acted out, occasionally with Hammond's stilted narration ("At night, when the city was quiet, he wrote.").
Hammond's hero, Rory Jensen (an out-of-his-depth Bradley Cooper), is a struggling writer who lives with his girlfriend (Zoë Saldana) in the kind of Brooklyn loft only struggling writers in movies can afford. When the novel he's spent years writing can't attract an agent, Rory settles into a job, marries Dora and somehow has the money to honeymoon in Paris. There he finds an old briefcase containing the English-language manuscript of a great novel he passes off as his own.
Literary stardom for Rory follows. Then an unnamed old man (Jeremy Irons, riveting) informs Rory the lost manuscript was his, and spins a flashback story about his younger self (Ben Barnes) in postwar Paris, where he and his wife (Nora Arnezeder) suffered a tragedy that led him to write that autobiographical novel.
Does the fictional Rory get exposed and become a literary pariah? Is Hammond's novel an autobiographical confession? And what gives Hammond's literary groupie (Olivia Wilde) so much attitude? As for the writing process itself, the film take a gauzy view of words spilling out as if by angels whispering in your ear -- there's not an eraser in sight, either on screen or, clearly, in the scriptwriters' room. It's all confounding without being intriguing.
PLOT A struggling writer passes off an old manuscript as his own. RATING PG-13
PLAYING AT Area theaters
BOTTOM LINE Well-intended, failed look at guilt and identity