Words and Pictures (2013) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sexual material including nude sketches, language and some mature thematic material
Running Time: 111 min.
Cast: Clive Owen, Juliette Binoche, Bruce Davison, Keegan Connor Tracy, Navid Negahban, Amy Brenneman, Valerie Tian, Adam DiMarco, Josh Ssettuba, Janet Kidder
Director: Fred Schepisi
Screenplay: Gerald Di Pego
Review published June 8, 2014
Sometimes there are those movies that I want to give a pass to because I like the lead performances so much that I'd like to forgive obvious story contrivances for the better good of the overall entertainment value. Words and Pictures tests my inclination to do this like nothing else I've seen this year. Clive Owen (The International, Shoot 'em Up) is very strong, perhaps one of his best performances on the screen to date. Juliette Binoche (Godzilla, Dan in Real Life) is very appealing as his rival, and very fun to watch in her own right, and it's especially commendable that she does all of her own painting in this film. That alone should be enough for some people to enjoy the film overall. However, as strong as they are, and as thoughtful as Words and Pictures can be in key scenes, this story that asks you to take these characters and their theories seriously is hampered by the sheer weight of its liberal dramatic license.
Owen's remarkable turn is as a prep school English teacher named Jack Marcus, who once had a promising writing career go to waste as he wrecks most of his relationships due to his badgering demeanor and erratic behavior, then buries himself in an endless stream of vodka. Binoche is the new art teacher at the school, Dina Delsanto, whose own career as a painter has hit the skids in her losing battle with rheumatoid arthritis, as she tries to adjust to the fact that she can scarcely hold a paintbrush anymore. The two immediately form a sort of hate-flirt relationship in which they goad each other into arguments to pump up the importance of their respective media of expression, culminating in a public battle for which manner of art is most important: words or pictures. With Jack's job on the line upon his next performance evaluation, he's going to have to choose his words carefully around some very important people, while both teachers find a way to inspire each other out of their current creative rut.
Words and Pictures is directed by Fred Schipisi (Roxanne, Mr. Baseball), who does draw out some decent performances from the two leads, but can't elevate the unrealistic elements of the screenplay by Gerald Di Pego (The Forgotten, Angel Eyes) into a form that stays consistent in tone. The film works best when Jack and Dina are bantering, as they are quite funny to observe in their interactions. The chemistry between Owen and Binoche seems to only reside in their intellectual rivalry, as their flirtatious relationship feels more at ease when they are needling one another, and flat-lines when they actually find themselves in each other's embrace. There's really nothing sexy in seeing these two characters swap spit.
Words and Pictures will likely play better on the small screen, precisely because it feels like a made-for-television movie that somehow enlisted the acting talent of a couple of movie stars. In between the hackneyed story elements, there are some inspiring philosophical questions elicited that make the film seem smarter than it actually is. Perhaps the best way to find out about how famous painters and writers inspire people around the world is to go to the source, rather than watch a movie that has performances that are far better than any of the words in the script or pictures that are projected on the screen.
©2014 Vince Leo