A charming, grown up romantic comedy like Words and Pictures is the kind of film guaranteed to evaporate in the summer heat of blockbuster season. Directed by Fred Schepisi and starring the ever-watchable duo of Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen, it's a film that presents a superior intellectual acumen, considering the power of the spoken word against the might of visual imagery. It's an interesting debate that would be better served in a film willing to really commit to it, but Words and Pictures is not it.
Owen and Binoche banter back and forth as combative prep school teachers, both with their share of personal issues to contend with. Jack Marcus (Owen) was once a poet of some acclaim but has never been able to follow-through on his early success. He's a brilliant, arrogant man with who likes to prove his mental acumen with complicated word games against the school staff. He's also a bitter alcoholic who no longer has the stature to fend off plans to shut down his program.
A fire is rekindled in his belly with the arrival of noted painter and honors art teacher, Dina Delsanto (Binoche), nicknamed "the icicle" for reasons that should be apparent. She's pretty standoffish and bitter herself, a by-product of the rheumatoid arthritis that has devastated her ability to do what she loves most. She and Jack flirt in the manner which they are accustomed. He talks way too much and is generally an insufferable cad; she speaks sparingly but vividly, preferring actions over idle chatter. It's the kind of bickering that can only lead to eventual romance if they can get over themselves long enough to realize what we knew from minute one. They inspire their students in obvious nods to Dead Poets' Society (one even calls Jack "my captain"), while figuring out if its possible to relive former glories.
Schepisi is probably still best remembered for directing Roxanne, another film that paid homage to the beauty of the spoken word, and he's a veteran helmer who knows to keep the emphasis on his two irresistible leads. The problem is in Gerald Di Pego's screenplay which minimizes an already-toothless debate in which there are no stakes. Jack and Dina are in this basically for bragging rights, and so the film doesn't even attempt to parse out which side makes the stronger case. There are some lovely moments between Owen and Binoche as their characters begin to loosen up and learn one another's creative language. There just needs to be more than a few cute scenes between great actors. For a film titled Words and Pictures, the battle between words and pictures isn't made to look all that important.