Thanks to the chemistry and talent of the two lead actors, ‘Words and Pictures’ is a charming romantic comedy. Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche make the banter come to life in Gerald Di Pego’s clever screenplay. The story attempts to answer the intriguing question, is a picture worth a thousand words? Director Fred Schepisi (Roxanne, Six Degrees of Separation) offers up a witty and endearing romantic comedy with a tinge of dark undertones. The characters are dealing with the slings and arrows that life throws at mature adults. It’s the way they deal with their misfortunes that make ‘Words and Pictures’ so engaging.
The story unfolds in an elite New England prep school. Jack Marcus (Owen) is a famous Poet that teaches honors English. He’s popular with the students and likes to challenge them. He wants them to appreciate the value of great writing. He understands it is a frustrating battle against technology and how it has relegated the English language to text messaging. Jack also oversees the annual literary magazine. The problem is that he hasn’t written anything for it in a while and the administration is so worried that it puts his teaching job in jeopardy. On top of that he is a functioning alcoholic. He promises the headmaster (Navid Negahban) and prominent board member (Amy Brenneman) he has a new poem in the works.
Owen’s portrayal of a self-destructive alcoholic is intense. During lunch breaks, he sits in his car looking disheveled with a scruffy beard and worn-out corduroy jacket sipping vodka from a thermos. It’s painful to watch. You see the desperation on his face as he struggles to keep his teaching job and his battle against writer’s block. As he stands in front of his class, it’s his passion for the written word that keeps him going. His witty rants oftentimes fall on deaf ears as his students are more concerned about their grades and getting into the top Ivy League colleges. In the teacher’s lounge, Jack slumps in a chair playing a polysyllabic word game with his colleagues. Besides fellow teacher Walt (Bruce Davison), the rest of the staff is tired of his rude behavior and unorthodox teaching style.
And then something happens. The school hires acclaimed artist Dina Delsanto (Juliet Binoche) to teach honors art. As she walks into the teacher’s lounge with her cane, she conveys a prickly edge to her personality due to her affliction with rheumatoid arthritis. Even with her disability, Binoche still manages to look sexy. As Jack is introduced to her, they ask each other what they teach. She says, “Honors Art” in which he replies “Hence the scarf.” She fires back at him noting his English Lit credentials, “Hence the hence.” When Jack begins the word game with Dina, he revels in finally meeting his intellectual match. When Dina casually remarks “Words are lies” to Jack, it sets off an ideological war as to whether words or pictures are more important. Binoche is brilliant in the role. She perfectly depicts her frustration as she struggles to paint on large canvasses at her home studio. One reason these scenes are so compelling is that Binoche is actually painting and displaying her own artwork in the film. They are impressive abstract paintings shown in gorgeous bold colors through the cinematography of Ian Baker.
The film isn’t without its flaws. There are a few subplots that fall flat. One in particular deals with a smart-aleck named Swint (Adam DiMarco) who harasses a fellow student Emily (Valerie Tian). It is clear she wants nothing to do with him so he lashes out at her by drawing a distasteful picture of her and spreading it among classmates on social media. The film tries to take on the feel of ‘Dead Poets Society’ but the students are not well-defined enough in the story. They come across as spoiled rich kids in many instances. Despite this minor bump in the story, the performances by Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche are so good that it makes for an appealing and witty romantic comedy for adults. Check out the official trailer http://youtu.be/ehQimFhQmQg.