Words and Pictures
Opens Fri., June 6 at Harvard Exit. Rated PG-13. 116 minutes.
This is a pretty hip high school. Not only do they employ a once-promising, now boozy, crushingly charismatic author as an English teacher, they’ve just hired an acclaimed painter—also loaded with charisma—whose career has been derailed by rheumatoid arthritis. Because of a trumped-up antipathy between these reluctant academics, this private school is about to witness a battle between, as the title puts it, Words and Pictures. If the writer can stay sober long enough, he’ll teach the kids about the power of prose, and if the painter can stifle her bitterness, she’ll espouse the primacy of the image. It’s elbow patches vs. stained smock, plus a countdown to the first shag between these two spectacularly good-looking people.
Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche play wordsmith and picture-maker, respectively. The casting is a source of both appeal and disappointment in this one-note movie; the roles are large, but the material thin. Owen’s character, Jack Marcus, is about to get tossed from the faculty for his hungover manners and his declining commitment. Dina Delsanto (Binoche) is soured by her illness and suffering from creative block. That’s about it for those two, and the idea of the schoolkids choosing sides in the words-versus-pictures debate is also sketchily handled. Screenwriter Gerald Di Pego is all about the inspirational message-making, but without any new wrinkles in this well-worn fare.
That the film moves at all is due to veteran Aussie director Fred Schepisi’s ability to get a flow going. The arc of his career has been puzzling—traveling from The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith to Six Degrees of Separation, with a healthy dose of rom-coms along the way—but he’s long been a master at filling the widescreen frame and building momentum. With a painter as subject (Binoche created her own canvases), Schepisi is able to make the movie look good, and the interiors are always interesting. But all this effort is in the service of ideas that just feel so, so tired. Good people like Amy Brenneman and Bruce Davison are visibly shriveled by their stock supporting roles, and the two top-drawer stars can’t make the formula work. Binoche is unsteady with the Hollywood idiom, despite coming up with a few unpredictable moments. Owen’s corduroy voice sounds awesome even when he’s adopting an American accent, and he seems unusually committed to this role. Over the years, Owen’s occasional flings at flexing action-movie muscles have yielded mixed results—but cast him as a disenchanted intellectual, and the guy is a knockout.