By Ed Symkus
More Content Now
Well before anything having to do with a storyline gets going in “Words and Pictures,” the new drama, comedy, romance and debilitating disease film from Aussie director Fred Schepisi (pronounced SKEP-see), plenty of stuff is revealed about its two prep school teacher protagonists.
Long-established English teacher and burned-out poet Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) regularly pours some vodka into his coffee thermos before leaving for work, and is always ready to pop a few pills to get him through the day. Talented artist and new art instructor Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche) walks with a cane and stubbornly refuses help from anyone.
Jack talks a lot, blurting out inner (possibly vodka-fueled) frustrations to his bright but – his opinion – lazy students. Dina is shy but feisty, and usually speaks only when she has to, as she’s got her own demons, in the shape of the rheumatoid arthritis that’s making it harder for her to walk and, more important, to paint. To his credit, scriptwriter Gerald Di Pego (“Phenomenon,” “Message in a Bottle”) infuses both of them with nicely pointed senses of humor, and a heady dose of bitterness. They are perfect foils for each other.
Schepisi has a many-decades-long career of making characters studies of people dealing with crises, ranging from Steve Martin’s lovelorn-ness in “Roxanne” to Meryl Streep’s wildlife hassles in “A Cry in the Dark” the family power struggles between Charlotte Rampling, Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis in the terrific but little-seen “The Eye of the Storm.”
“Words and Pictures” concentrates on the differences and, yes, similarities, between Jack and Dina, and their resulting debate over which is more important in our culture, words or pictures (you can figure out which sides are taken by the English teacher and by the art teacher). The film easily could have been a fascinating yin-yang look at their “opposites attracting” relationship, but it mistakenly takes an easier, more middle-of-the-road route of bringing the students who are in both of their classes into the mix, and putting too much concentration on those less interesting characters.
There are a couple of exceptions. Good performances are turned in by shy and somewhat downtrodden Emily (Valerie Tian) and especially by full-of-himself and pushy Swint (Adam DiMarco), who makes Emily the target of his unwanted advances.
But it’s the struggles of the adult characters, even with their tendencies to lean toward soap opera sensibilities, that make the film worth watching. And it’s the spot-on performances by the two actors that make the characters work. I can’t recall Clive Owen doing anything so fast, loose, funny and annoying before, and he does it all well here. Binoche gets across everything needed to be known about her character with a minimum of words and a great deal of facial expression. She plays a woman who’s experiencing varying levels of emotional and physical pain. A neat surprise is that when Binoche is not acting, she paints, and all of the paintings attributed to Dina in the film were really done by her.
It’s too bad that the film feels unbalanced, that it spends too much time on the idea of art being used as a weapon, and goes into some drivel about Jack trying to get back together with his estranged adult son rather than concentrating more on what’s going on between Jack and Dina.
The central premise that gives the film its title gets more attention near the end, when a school assembly with different students and teachers on different sides of the issue becomes the equivalent, if this was a sports movie, of “the big game.” This is also where the film’s biggest misstep occurs, as everything becomes too neat, too precious. There are lots of good ideas and performances in “Words and Pictures.” But too many of them are overwhelmed by components the film could do without.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
WORDS AND PICTURES
Written by Gerald Di Pego; directed by Fred Schepisi
With Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche
Movie review: Missteps mar Words and Pictures’
By Ed Symkus