Young writer Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) has finally achieved long sought after literary success after publishing the next great American novel. There's only one catch: he didn't write it. As the past comes back to haunt him and his literary star continues to rise, Jansen is forced to confront the steep price that must be paid for stealing another man's work, and for placing ambition and success above life's most fundamental three words. 

Melodrama built on contrived, shallow literary device.

There are four writers in this pretentious, turgid melodrama: a successful novelist, a plagiarist, an old man who wrote the purloined manuscript and a younger version of that character.

all the artifice upon artifice amounts to very little

Confusing? Yes, and all the artifice upon artifice in The Words amounts to very little. First time directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal wrote the muddled screenplay which revolves around deceit, ambition, moral choices and their consequences; their only previous writing credit, amusingly, was the story of TRON: Legacy.

The awkwardly-staged framing device is a public reading of the novel 'The Words’ by its middle-aged, prosperous author Clayton Hammond (Dennis Quaid). The book’s purple prose and Quaid’s lugubrious narration merely add to the portentousness of the piece.

The novel tells of Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), a struggling young writer in New York who works in the mail room of a publishing house after his tomes get numerous rejections. Rory has a supportive, spunky wife in Dora (Zoë Saldana) and a wealthy father (J.K. Simmons) who tires of lending him money.

Rory’s luck seems to change when he finds a yellowed manuscript in a battered old satchel which Dora bought in an antiques shop in Paris during their honeymoon: why it took him six months to delve into the satchel is one of many glaring plot holes.

He quickly realises the uncredited manuscript is wonderful, far better than he could ever write. After a brief struggle with his conscience, he gives the novel a title, 'The Window Tears’, presents it to his boss as his own work, and it becomes a best seller.

While Rory is basking in the adulation and winning literary awards, he’s approached in Central Park by a gaunt, bearded, white-haired character identified in the novel only as The Old Man (Jeremy Irons). The elderly chap reveals that, like the protagonist in The Window Tears, he was in Paris at the end of WWII.

Via sepia-toned flashbacks he recounts the story of how as an 18-year-old (played by Ben Barnes) he met and fell in love with Celia (Nora Arnezeder), a beautiful waitress, they married and they had a baby girl.

Rory listens with growing alarm as the Old Man declares he wrote the novel which Rory has claimed as his own and explains how he lost it and the calamitous effect that had on his marriage.

Thus Rory faces a prickly moral and ethical dilemma, which is finally resolved after which the narrative takes an unwelcome and puzzling turn as Clayton is befriended by Daniella (Olivia Wilde), a young Columbia graduate student and literary groupie. Just why Daniella takes such an obsessive interest in the ageing author is never satisfactorily explained, and her intervention appears to be a literary device that hints at Hammond’s own moral quandary.

The role requires Cooper to smother his usual charm and bonhomie. As a result, he’s required to look pained, guilty or crestfallen in a stiff performance. Whether or not Rory gets his comeuppance should be the fulcrum of the film’s suspense but as it pans out, the viewer may not be unduly bothered either way.

Irons gives the film a modicum of gravitas and dramatic heft, eloquently conveying his character’s life-long disappointment and pain. Quaid is cocky and superficially charming but he comes across a literary creation, without real depth.

The screenplay is evidently intended as a clever and high-brow riff on the blurred lines between fiction and real life, but the net effect is unnecessarily convoluted, unconvincing and riddled with clichés. In this case, words are indeed cheap.