I'm OK with a film telling a story within a story—you know, those movies where a narrator in the present day reads from a book, and we see his story play out. The Princess Bride totally rocked that format.
But when you go to a story within a story within a story ... well, you start to lose me.
That actually happens in The Words, a film boasting a decent cast and at least one good storyline out of the many it throws out. Dennis Quaid, in story No. 1, is a big author at a conference doing a reading of his book. Story No. 2 would be the depiction of the book itself, which is about a writer (Bradley Cooper) who finds a crumply novel in an antique briefcase and decides to publish it as his own.
Story No. 3 features Jeremy Irons as the man who wrote the crumply novel. He makes himself known to the plagiarist, and we get a little of his present-day story. Then, the Jeremy Irons character tells his freaking backstory, and we find ourselves in a flashback inside a narrative being told by somebody in the present day.
Confusing? Perhaps. Unnecessary? I think so. Boring? Definitely.
The biggest problem is that you just don't give a shit about Dennis Quaid's obviously disenchanted author. The film tries to be clever regarding his character, giving him more purpose as the story plays out, but his existence is unneeded.
The more-interesting story is the one with Cooper and Irons. I'm not saying their tale has the makings of a great movie, but it is more coherent and streamlined. Every time the movie popped back to the Quaid character, I lost interest. And every time the Irons character took me into a flashback, I found it to be one story level too many.
Cooper tries dutifully to make something of this mess. His character calls for him to be insecure, guilt-ridden and cowardly. He's effectively subtle at times, but comically bad at others. He has one drunken scene with his screen wife (Zoe Saldana) that earns an instant berth on his "When I Totally Sucked!" reel.
The film perks up when Irons shows up on a park bench and ridicules the young author for stealing his story. I was hoping there would be more interaction between Cooper and Irons, but this is where co-directors/co-writers Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal screw up: Instead of focusing on Irons and Cooper, they bring the story back to a younger version of Irons in postwar Paris, and details about how he lost his book.
Until the moment when these flashbacks started, I was hanging in with the film—but that flashback took me out of the movie, and even worse, it was followed by another lengthy visitation with the Quaid character. I started thinking about stuff like backgammon and how I haven't really played it in a long time. Then I remembered how I hated playing backgammon and preferred chess. Then I reminded myself that I was supposed to be concentrating on this overstuffed movie.
Of the women in the movie, Saldana fares best, with a typically good performance in a movie beneath her station. Olivia Wilde is a dud as a grad student who is basically stalking Quaid's author. The writing for her character is awful.
If you take out Quaid, the drunken Cooper scene, the whole Irons flashback and the stupid Wilde character, you wouldn't have much to watch with The Words: It would be about a half-hour long, and a trite 30 minutes at that. But at least it would be over fast, and Quaid would be freed up to make that Breaking Away sequel I've always wanted him to make.