Bradley Cooper and Zoe Saldana in The WordsTHE WORDS

Three separate narratives dovetail in The Words, a modestly engaging morality drama by writers/directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal. Yet ironically enough, the one narrative I never bought into was the one that's meant to be the most believable, though heaven knows the other two aren't exactly models of cinematic authenticity.

The healthiest percentage of The Words' screen time is devoted to Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), a desperate, struggling writer who stumbles upon a manuscript in an old briefcase, falls in love with the unpublished novel, and, with only a minimum of hand-wringing, decides to pass it off as his own work. A second portion of the film visualizes the novel in question, a tragedy of love and loss that turns out to be an autobiographical account, which Jansen learns after his fraudulent achievement becomes a huge success and he's confronted by the book's now-elderly, understandably resentful author (Jeremy Irons). The movie's third storyline, meanwhile, is also its framing device, as the plot involving Jansen is actually a fiction (or is it?) being recounted by bestselling novelist Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) - a smarmy, pretentious d-bag who reads from his tale of literary theft while under the watchful gaze of a seemingly adoring fan (Olivia Wilde). So why was this particular segment of the film - the one segment that, as we know from the start, isn't being presented as an author's conceit - the only one I really couldn't accept?

In part, at least for my tastes, it's because Dennis Quaid has become all-too-proficient at playing smarmy, pretentious d-bags. Without question, the man is still capable of delivering fine performances; last year, Quaid was touching as conflicted fathers in both Soul Surfer and the Footloose remake, the latter of which being a movie in which fine performances were hardly expected or required. But over the past decade, in his more frequent odious-creep roles, Quaid has been telegraphing his characters' insufferability with such grinning obviousness that everything he says and does reads as phony. (He's like a middle-aged barfly trying, in vain, to pick up a young woman with dirty-minded come-ons, only the victim of his sad attempts is you.) The actor's segment in The Words, however, still might have worked if we believed that Hammond's novel was the critical and popular smash it's claimed to be - the prose the author reads, with dull disinterest, at his book-signing event is completely lacking in grace, wit, and style - or if Wilde's initially intriguing role didn't wind up so unformed and ambiguous. Happily, this section of the film takes up the least of the movie's screen time, but it's still a drag every time we're forced back into it.

It's the other two plotlines - or, more specifically, the people in them - that make Klugman's and Sternthal's shared directorial debut occasionally gripping, and at times quite entertaining. The story-within-the-story-within-the-story, told in flashback, doesn't possess the depth or romantic grandeur that would make you understand either its critical acclaim or its popularity, but it's moving enough, and sweetly enacted by Ben Barnes and Nora Arnezeder. (It's also a clever fictionalization of the true 1922 story of Ernest Hemingway's first wife losing all of Papa's manuscripts on a train.) And while the stolen-novel narrative does boast a fair degree of tension, and Cooper and Zoe Saldana, portraying Jansen's supportive wife, share some lovely, heartfelt scenes, your best reason for seeing The Words lies with Irons, whose ravaged intensity and actorly joy make you occasionally forget about even the movie's most improbable coincidences (of which there are loads). Meeting Jansen for the first time, Irons' old man - named, in the end credits, The Old Man - praises the author for his book. "I liked it very, very much," he purrs, smiling at him with insinuating, threatening wickedness, and never has a compliment sounded so deeply threatening, or so thrillingly sinister. I had an okay time at The Words. But Irons' performance? I liked it very, very much.


Bruce Willis and Sigourney Weaver in The Cold Light of DayTHE COLD LIGHT OF DAY

Bruce Willis and Sigourney Weaver receive above-the-title billing in The Cold Light of Day, and if this were 1988, that might actually mean something. But these days, for every Moonrise Kingdom or Avatar they appear in, there are three or four total bummers, and this new action thriller from director Mabrouk El Mechri feels like the lamest action thriller 1988 could ever offer - a dopey, manic, increasingly confounding shoot-'em-up so senseless that the word "incoherent" should also receive above-the-title billing. For an interminable 90 minutes, star Henry Cavill overacts with strenuous determination, Middle Eastern thugs demand information from the man while simultaneously shooting to kill, the plotting proves as laughable as the dialogue, and it all seems designed to make you look back on 2011's Taylor Lautner vehicle Abduction with something approaching fondness. Weaver also co-starred in Abduction, and near The Cold Light of Day's end, during one of the film's many tiresome, incompetently staged chase scenes, she sighs, "I'm getting sick of this." Take a number, Sigourney.

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