Clayton Hammond (Dennis Quaid) attends a public reading of his new book, The Words. Clayton begins reading from his book which focuses on a fictional character named Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), an aspiring writer who lives in New York City with his girlfriend, Dora (Zoe Saldana). Rory borrows some money from his father (J. K. Simmons), gets a job as a mail supervisor at a literary agency and attempts to sell his first novel, which is repeatedly rejected by publishers.
After living together for some time, Rory and Dora marry and, during their honeymoon in Paris, Dora buys Rory an old briefcase he was admiring from an antiques store. After returning to America and having his book rejected again, Rory finds an old but masterfully written manuscript in the briefcase with a central character named Jack. Rory types the manuscript into his laptop. Later, while using the laptop, Dora happens upon the novel and reads it. She mistakenly assumes that Rory wrote the novel and convinces him to give it to a publisher at work, Joseph Cutler (Željko Ivanek) as his own. After a few months Joseph finally reads the manuscript and offers Rory a contract which he accepts. The book is a hit and Rory becomes famous.
At this point, Hammond takes a break from the reading and goes backstage, where he is introduced by his agent (John Hannah) to Daniella (Olivia Wilde), a student and amateur writer who wants to interview him and notes that he is separated from his wife, although he still wears a wedding ring. Hammond agrees to meet her after the ceremony and returns to the stage, where he continues to read the book.
The second part of the reading details Rory’s encounter with "The Old Man" (Jeremy Irons) in New York City's Central Park, who reveals himself as the true author of the manuscript and that it was based on his life in Paris. He explains that he was a young man (Ben Barnes) when first stationed in France by the U.S. Army in the final days of World War II, where he fell in love with Celia (Nora Arnezeder), a French waitress. They eventually married and had a daughter, but the baby died shortly after birth. Unable to cope with the loss, Celia left him and moved to her parents' house. He then used his pain as inspiration to write the manuscript, which he took to Celia while visiting her at her parents’ home. She found the story so moving that she chose to return to him. However, she unintentionally left the manuscript in a briefcase on the train after her trip back to Paris, thereby losing it. Because of the loss of the manuscript, their reconciliation was short-lived, and they divorced soon afterwards.
The public reading ends and Hammond tells his fans they must buy the book to learn how it ends. Daniella then accompanies Hammond back to his apartment where she pressures him into telling her more. Hammond explains that Rory tells the truth about the creation of the story, first to his wife and then to Cutler. Also, Rory tells Cutler he wants to credit the old man as the true author. Cutler angrily advises against this as it would severely damage both their reputations and recommends giving the old man a share of the book's profits instead.
Rory then seeks out the old man to pay him and finds him working in a plant nursery. The old man refuses the money but, after doing so, reveals that while once riding a train to work, years after his divorce, he spotted Celia with a new husband and a young son at a train station. The old man points out that people always move on from their mistakes, and Rory will too.
Daniella continues to pressure Hammond for more details. He reveals that the old man dies not long after Rory’s second meeting with him along with the secret about who the manuscript's author really is. Daniella deduces that The Words is actually an auto-biographical book, with Rory as Hammond's surrogate, and kisses him, reassuring him that people move on from their mistakes, but he pulls away. She asks him what he really wants, life or fiction. The film flashes to Dora reminiscing about her life with Rory, remembering happier times, and ends by telling him that "we're going to be fine."
According to some Swiss newspapers, the plot of The Words is similar to that of the 2004 novel Lila Lila by Martin Suter (made into the German film Lila, Lila released in 2009), which is also about a young unsuccessful author who discovers an old manuscript, is pushed by his girlfriend into publishing it, becomes enormously successful, is later confronted by an old man who is (or in that case, knows) the original author, and then publishes a second book about how this all happened. Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal say that they knew nothing of Suter, his work, or Lila Lila. They had the idea and began writing The Words in 1999, years before Lila Lila was published. Together they attended the 2000 Sundance Screenwriter's Lab with their original screenplay.Bradley Cooper as Rory JansenZoe Saldana as Dora JansenOlivia Wilde as DaniellaJeremy Irons as The Old ManBen Barnes as The Young ManDennis Quaid as Clay HammondJ. K. Simmons as Rory's fatherJohn Hannah as Richard FordNora Arnezeder as CeliaŽeljko Ivanek as Joseph CutlerMichael McKean as Nelson WyllieRon Rifkin as Timothy EpsteinBrian Klugman as Jason RosenLiz Stauber as Camy RosenLee Sternthal as Brett Copsey
The Words started filming in Montreal, Canada, on June 7, 2011. The Montreal location was used because it could pass as both Paris and New York.
The Words had its world premiere at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Prior to its official premiere and following a press and industry screening at Sundance, the film was purchased by CBS Films for $2 million with a $1.5 million print and advertising commitment.
The Words has received negative reviews from critics, as it currently holds a 22% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 117 reviews with a weighted average of 4.6/10 and the consensus stating: "Neither as clever nor as interesting as it appears to think it is, The Words maroons its talented stars in an overly complex, dramatically inert literary thriller that's ultimately a poor substitute for a good book". At Metacritic, the film received 37 out of 100 with generally unfavorable reviews from 30 critics. Jen Chaney from The Washington Post gave the film 1.5 out of 5 stars, saying it "is a well-acted but narratively limp indie that’s undermined by a failure to connect emotionally with its audience".
Chris Pandolfi from At A Theater Near You praised the film, saying that while its "ambiguity is unlikely to be appreciated by everyone," it "deserves to be structurally, emotionally, and thematically analyzed."
Stephen Holden of The New York Times also praised the film as "a clever, entertaining yarn."