Starring Clive Owen, Juliette Binoche, Amy Brenneman, Bruce Davison, Valerie Tian
Directed by Fred Schepisi
Written by Gerald Di Pego
It is quite uncommon to come across a literate romance comedy featuring middle-aged academics engaging in conflicting ideologies and clashing personalities that eventually leads to an affair of the heart. Refreshingly, the engaging but uneven Words and Pictures dares to break up the monotony among the larger-than-life comic book superheroes, sci-fi spectacles and raunchy comedies that saturate the big screen in the free-for-all summertime movie season.
Actually, it is also nice to see grown-up love stories that incorporate a sense of intellectualism, artistry and Hepburn/Tracy-inspired sparring. Director Fred Schepisi (“Roxanne”) and screenwriter Gerald Di Pego create an artsy bubble where two opinionated and flawed educators (Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche) tangle in the arena of words and pictures. Although the material is often smart, insightful and witty with both Schepisi’s bouncy direction and Di Pego’s challenging script Words and Pictures at times feels worlds apart with its cliched confrontations, situated dysfunction and formulaic “opposites attract” premise. Both Owen and Binoche disarm the audience with their infectious appeal but the film cannot quite sustain their sometime sketchy exchanges that could be more meatier in context.
Jack Marcus (Owen) is an English teacher at a Maine-based prep school who is highly revered by his admiring students as he motivates them in writing and thought. Once a gifted writer of poetry Jack has fallen significantly off the chart with his alcoholism. The drinking has severely impacted his progression in preparing a book and made him a combative pariah to his family, friends and work associates at the school. Jack is a likable rogue but he is in a dark place right now. The English teacher, when not instructing the composition of words in the classroom, fancies using words as a gaming tool to keep his learned colleagues on their toes.
Eventually Jack will face his match and trade wits when he meets the acquaintance of no-nonsense new art teacher Dina Delsanto (Binoche). Dina, when outside of the school walls, has a budding career as a gallery artist. So both teachers–Jack with his knack for words and Dina with her prowess for the imagery of pictures–get into a nagging showdown in expressing what form of expressive communication is ideal…you know…is it words or pictures?
Of course John’s struggles with hitting the sauce highlights his personal demons as an author. We get to learn in the case of Dina’s major hang-up her battle with rheumatoid arthritis which impairs her significant strides as an artist whose passion for pictures color her world immensely. So there is common ground in the personalized hardship of both bickering brain trusts despite their varying philosophical differences in what determines the true art of human expression. But the vulnerabilities and vitality for their creative convictions is the key bond that bring the talkative twosome together in adversity and affection.
Words and Pictures does have a poetic pulse to its sophisticated cheekiness. It is a welcomed change of pace to see polished and attractive specimens Binoche and Owen downplay their usual on-screen elegance in favor of aged, ruffled and wounded adults that are both prisoners of their pleasure and pain. The film wants us to enthusiastically connect to these brilliant yet broken souls yet the light confrontational conflicts between Owen’s Jack and Binoche’s Dina have a conventional screwball breeziness that never feels in sync with the underlying angst of the characters’ foundation. The collection of students that surround the chastising-to-chummy prep school pair seem like mere bystanders to the quirky debate orchestrated by the artistic combatants.
Somehow Schepisi’s narrative suffers from a disjointed shift in tone regarding the dueling arguments because the he said/she said dynamite only scrapes the surface without fully committing to anything more deeper than the choppy sentimental set-up we experience between the impish give-and-take transpiring from the wayward leads. Words and Pictures is an ambitious romancer but its missed opportunities leaves this charming but trivial tale of artistic rivaling viewpoints not quite making the grade.