Words and Pictures
It wouldn't be surprising to learn that "Words and Pictures" had its start as a play. With its setting, an upscale prep school, and its major players, a brusque English teacher who believes in the superiority of the written word and an equally argumentative artist that thinks pictures have more import, there's a contrived, if convivial tension that would fit neatly into a two-act play.
That this battle takes place between two attractive, middle-aged actors, Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche, also makes the movie a throwback to the kind-of battle-of-the-wits that Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy made a lauded series of comedies about. But that, and the theatrical conventions at its core, make it feel not so much fresh, as quaint: the kind of movie that fell out of a time capsule from the 1980s.
Sure, there's talk of Twitter (dismissive) and a nod to the issue of bullying (racial and sexual), but "Words and Pictures," directed by Fred Schepisi from a script by Gerald DiPego, seems like what would have happened if Merchant/Ivory had made a rom-com: affable, middle-brow entertainment.
The story follows what happens when English teacher Jack Marcus (Owen) comes up against a new art teacher Dina Delsanto (Binoche) at the start of a new school year at Croyden, a prestigious Maine prep school. Marcus was a renowned poet and fiction writer before coming to Croyden some years before as a rock star on the faculty; but writer's block and a tendency to drink has put his post in danger; Delsanto is a well-known artist forced to take this job when her rheumatoid arthritis has made it too difficult to stay in New York, or, more tellingly, to paint. Both find their students apathetic, lacking passion; but when Marcus declares war on Delsanto with his dictum that words are superior to pictures, the students become energized.
Of course there's a sexual tension between Marcus and Delsanto; both crusty and argumentative, they bond over a word game where each tries to top the other with multi-syllabic words. There's also the tension that Marcus has with himself over his drinking. He's been coasting for years, but now it is causing him to self-destruct, leading him to a desperate act he makes to save his career. This comes to haunt the film's more serious last act; up to then the film is deft in handling its larger themes and playful in the flirtatious relationship between Owen and Binoche.
Owen has the showier role, replete with any number of alcoholic outbursts that don't endear him to anyone, especially the school's committee that is considering firing him; and he convincingly conveys that conflict, making him sympathetic despite his antisocial outbursts. Binoche's conflict is more inwardly-driven, but she effectively conveys it through her facial expressions -- at times scowling, at others smiling radiantly, and acts as a strong foil to the abrasive Marcus.
The film's central argument is really just an excuse for a pair of character-studies and, eventually, a love story. Can this prickly pair find happiness with each other and their mutual afflictions? You do the math; but getting there is a pleasant enough journey. There are subplots, one involving Owen and his estranged son; another involving an Asian student being sexually harassed by a boorish student; neither of which are fully developed and only contribute to the film's longish running time. Still to see a movie where such issues as the fall-out from alcoholism has on relationships and high school bullying are addressed is refreshing. "Words and Pictures" is smart, if old-fashioned: the kind-of movie you can take your parents to without any issues. Be prepared, though, to expect the urge to look at your cell phone to check the running time as it moves towards its climax. Good actors can only do so much to enliven an often witty, but meandering script.