(CNN) -- A movie about literary merit, artistic ambition, authenticity and conscience, set in New York's publishing world, featuring stories within stories and propelled by an unreliable narrator. It may sound like smart, upscale filmmaking, but I'm afraid "The Words" turns into a punishing sentence.
Resembling nothing so much as one of those hermetic Woody Allen comedies about self-absorbed intelligentsia, only without the comedy, "The Words" lays its bookish credentials on thick but rarely feels honest or true.
Instead, it rehashes one cliché after another: War-torn lovers part on train platforms, a dusty attaché case picked up in an antique store holds hidden treasure, and late at night, a disappointed author rereads the rejection letters he's kept on file for just such an occasion.
We begin with Dennis Quaid's craggy novelist Clay Hammond reading to a packed hall from his latest book, "The Words." This is the tale of another acclaimed novelist, Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), and his prizewinning opus, "The Window Tear," which -- wouldn't you know it? -- comes with its own, troubled back story and yet another great writer, this one played by Jeremy Irons under layers of latex and an unbecoming raincoat.
Confused? You won't be. The movie insists on explaining itself down to the last comma in copious narration or clunky expository dialogue as it shunts from one literary crisis to the next.
One guy can't get published and may be too subtle for his own good. Another loses his manuscript. A third can't get laid. These qualify as high stakes for men who sit in front of a desk all day (believe me, I know!), but they don't necessarily translate into compelling drama.
That's why the last time Bradley Cooper played an aspiring writer with more ambition than talent -- remember "Limitless"? -- he took a mind-enhancing super drug and quickly graduated to more inherently cinematic activities like making millions on Wall Street and dodging bullets. Much fun was had by all, and the movie was a minor but deserving hit.
In a flick with an unusually high proportion of unconvincing performances, at least Cooper holds his own: Unwarranted approbation is something he gets. Quaid is stuck with the worst of the writing, Hammond's leaden prose, but his strident delivery sure doesn't help. Irons overdoes the hunched old man theatrics and can't keep his accent in check but still manages to suggest nuances and knowledge well beyond the scope of anybody else on screen. A scene in which he teases out a yarn -- part confession, part accusation -- on a park bench is a little master class in timing and tonal variation, like watching an expert fly-fisherman reel in the catch of the day.
As for the women -- Zoe Saldana, Olivia Wilde, Nora Arnezeder -- they're either doe-eyed with admiration or walking out the door, with precious little in between. That seems like a serious miscalculation for a movie that wouldn't mind jerking your tear ducts from time to time, but it's easily trumped by the folly of writing such a turgid screenplay about literary accomplishment. As someone remarked to a bona fide American wordsmith, Ernest Hemingway, "the sun also sets, you know?"