Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche give their all to “Words and Pictures,” a romantic comedy that debates the value of text vs. image. But cinema fails them. At least this piece of it.
Owen and Binoche commit fully to their characters, prep-school teachers who also are complicated, intriguing people. “Words,” which is gimmicky and too loose-limbed, lacks such commitment.
Owen plays Jack, an acclaimed writer, English teacher and heavy drinker (was it F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrote, “All writers in movies are drunks,” or was it me?) A hung-over version of Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society,” Jack challenges his students to crack some John Updike and open their “computer-deadened” minds. He holds that writing is a powerful art form in its own right.
Of course it is. But Gerald Di Pego’s script assumes questions still rage about the abilities of words, and images, to transport, and about which medium can say more. Maybe these questions do rage at real prep schools. And who doesn’t enjoy a little esoteric talk in an academia-set film? But the debate here is too pedestrian to have merited the screen time it receives. It eventually plays as a device to forward the plot.
Jack gets offended when the new art teacher (Binoche) declares to her class that “words are lies!” (The students who report this quote to Jack take it out of context and ignore how Binoche’s French accent makes her English sound emphatic.) Jack and his students challenge the art teacher, Dina, and her students to a words-against-pictures showdown that will culminate in a public battle in which students will decide what moves them more, a piece of writing or a painting.
The text vs. image debate would be acceptable were it merely a means of having Jack and Dina butt heads before discovering their mutual attraction. Romantic comedies have hinged on less. But the script keeps reviving the debate as if matters, which it doesn’t, and especially not once the movie takes a deep dive into Jack’s and Dina’s personal stories. At this point, we want more time with Jack and Dina, people with real problems and real spark, not more contrivance.
Owen oozes charm as a man who genuinely loves language and who challenges Dina, when they first meet, to come up with a five-syllable word on the spot. School officials want Jack to focus that energy on his writing instead. Having a buzzed-about writer on staff offset the times Jack made drunken scenes around their idyllic prep-school town. (Set in Maine, the film was shot in British Columbia and looks suitably woodsy and tweedy).
Jack’s lack of current writing puts his job in jeopardy – a threat that sends him over the edge, into almost full-time drinking. This development lets Owen dig into a character of unusual contradiction: a guy self-destructing while simultaneously, and sincerely, trying to inspire students and woo Dina.
Owen gives Jack a base of vibrancy that alcohol dulls, but never fully. In Owen’s eyes, you see flashes of self-loathing but also a crackling intelligence and irrepressible spirit. Jack is a romantic professionally, quoting great writers in class, and personally, recognizing even through a vodka haze that women like Dina do not appear in the faculty lounge every day.
What “Words” does best is show how people’s problems do not define them. Dina, too, is a success in her field, but the accomplished painter no longer can hold a brush, because of rheumatoid arthritis. But she advocates for a talented student (Valerie Tian) and for art itself, and she’s trying to find a way to paint again.
Her movements stiff and halting, Binoche physically imparts Dina’s chronic pain (her body resists RA drugs). Binoche lends enough pent-up frustration to a short scene in which Dina tries to open a pill bottle to suggest years of physical struggle and its attendant emotional fallout.
Dina, who can be tough on students and whose nickname is “The Icicle,” never seems chilly with Jack. Binoche visibly brightens in Owen’s presence, implying that Dina immediately appreciates Jack’s appeal but resists at first because she’s focused on her health, not romance.
Binoche’s acting can contradict the script, which refers to her character as pricklier than she plays her. But from the looks of “Words,” Aussie filmmaker Fred Schepisi (“Roxanne,” “A Cry in the Dark”) directed with a loose hand, sometimes to the film’s benefit, sometimes not.
The actors playing students look 24, which is a casting issue. That they consistently lack nuance is a directing issue. Tian is sympathetic but sometimes overwrought as Dina’s shy art student, who is being harassed by one of Jack’s favorite students. Adam DiMarco plays that student so broadly – practically snarling with contempt – that when Jack defends him to Dina, Jack momentarily seems creepy, too.
Schepisi’s hang-loose approach results in lovely moments in which Jack and Dina become acquainted. It also means the film, too long at two hours, can feel flabby. A sense of excess springs less from the vibe within the Jack-Dina scenes than the combination of these scenes and superfluous revivals of the words vs. pictures battle.