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film review

This film image released by CBS Films shows Bradley Cooper and Zoë Saldana in a scene from The Words.Jonathan Wenk/The Associated Press

With a new school year freshly under way, now's the time for a film about a beleaguered plagiarist with an imposter complex. Really, kids: Don't do it.

Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) is a big kid with a huge desire to make it as an author on the New York literary scene. His enabling dad keeps giving him money to support the habit, but success isn't coming Rory's way, until his supportive wife, Dora (Zoe Saldana), buys him a beat-up leather satchel full of yellowed paper while on their Paris honeymoon after a trip to Hemingway's home. It has to be magical.

After many bleary, unshaven nights at an underused typewriter, Rory is suddenly possessed by an urge to copy the anonymous document he found inside the bag, and does so in a single passionate session. A literary agent reads the novel Rory now claims as his own – also in one ecstatic sitting – and lavishes it with praise, insisting on its publication. Rory's wife calls it "fuller, truer and more honest," and starts loving her husband more. We're told that the book becomes a cherished gift to all who behold it, as the movie vaguely demonstrates, offering comparisons with The Sun Also Rises, and someone calling it a "remarkable work of fiction," as the best means of establishing its credibility. Like Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, this will divide those who accept clichéd versions of the Lost Generation – and are capable of taking their literary triumphs for granted – from those who can't.

In this film, and as a pill-popper in Limitless (about another aspiring New York novelist who finds an illicit and secret route to glory), Cooper specializes at playing a pinched, modern-day Faust. He's also just a character in a story within a story that a writer named Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) is telling to a swish audience of literati, and us, in hyperbolic voiceover, at what must be the world's longest public reading for a novel.

The language used in the film's constant narration, and by the characters in appreciation of fine literature, always aims for larger emotions and ramifications than its drama manages to conjure. Instead, the various sets of romantic relationships are depicted in a familiar, glossy fashion: by recurring montages of men and women cradling each other, set to syrupy string sections. One of Rory's contemplative moments consists of walking halfway up a set of stairs leading to a subway station and freezing, vacantly. "Longing" is said repeatedly, not shown.

The Words consists of more interrelated stories within stories, and they shouldn't be spoiled, though you're likely to see them coming. They each depict romance as alternating, exclusively, between ecstasy and misery: playfully wrestling for ice cream at a picnic, or tearfully saying goodbye at a train station.

When The Princess Bride, for instance, used the device of the storyteller as narrator, it managed to interrupt and return to its stories playfully and charmingly. This film's layered storytelling lacks the fluidity, grace, or good humour, to pull off its conceit.

Your little teacher inside will be thankful for the film's equation of stealing a book to stealing a soul, though the Soul, as it appears here, is pretty hammy. A cutting-edge conversation about intellectual property rights is nowhere to be found.

The Words suggests that a story, whether true or not, can help get us through, if we believe it enough. Though this film can't quite pull it off, a good enough thief can get away with it.