Owen, Binoche Make the Most of Inflated 'Words & Pictures'

Directed by: Fred Sehepisi; Runtime: 111 minutes
Grade: C

Recently, Clive Owen portrayed legendary author Ernest Hemingway in the television docu-drama Hemingway and Gellhorn, while Juliette Binoche wandered the paths of the philosophy and legitimacy of paintings in Abbas Kiarostami's quietly brilliant Certified Copy. There's something effortlessly appealing about both actors in those respective types of roles -- Owen as a gruff scholar; Binoche as an ensconced art enthusiast -- that should bolster Words & Pictures, a lithe rom-com from Roxanne and I.Q. director Fred Schepisi about two high-school professors embroiled in a lighthearted war about whether text or images carry more importance. Instead of letting the topic and the chemistry between two flawed-yet-passionate artists on involuntary creative hiatus play out organically, the debate gets tangled up in a broad, unnecessary web of events that appeals too easily to stereotypes and shoehorned drama, messily undermining the characters' strengths along its unsurprisingly therapeutic and uplifting path.

At Croydon Academy high-school, sardonic author/poet Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) learns that his job's in jeopardy, largely driven by his alcoholism and disruptive behavior. On top of that, the school's literary magazine -- which, of course, he's responsible for producing -- also might be on the chopping block due to a lack of funds and the uninspired submissions from the students. Shortly after discovering this, Marcus meets one of the school's new teachers: Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche), a dour and detached former painter who keeps people at arm's length because of her crippling health condition. As the semester progresses, a discussion emerges between their respective classes (which share most of the same students) about expression through words/literature against that of visual images, starting a back-and-forth "war" between the school of thoughts. While the students develop passion for the debate itself, Marcus and Delsanto build their own jokey rapport, a reprieve from their dire personal struggles outside of the classroom.

Written by Gerald Di Pego, the mind behind the bizarre thrills of Angel Eyes and The Forgotten, Words & Pictures discovers its best moments while flipping between the merits of literature and visual expression, guided by the two professors struggling with their personal wars with their individual crafts. The conflict between the opposing positions occasionally yields an enjoyable energy, referencing the communication skills of caveman, revolutionaries, and advertisements in what ultimately plays like the highlights of an anthropological lecture on the topic. Notably, it's amusing to see both Marcus and Delsanto tackle the oft-used and cliche "A picture is worth a thousand words" line, handled in a clever way on the school's grounds. As the war simmers at school, the story also reflects on the teachers' creative blocks and how neither are able to practice what they preach due to their individual circumstances. The foundation's there for a study of damaged artists passing their gifts on through teaching, as well as the idea of igniting passion for liberal arts through a form of cultural rivalry.

Apparently, though, that wasn't enough. The personal drama within Words & Pictures becomes overblown amid their fine-arts battle, dialing up the emotional vigor through inflated high-school theatrics and a baldly manipulative progression of the teachers' hardships. Di Pego's script has a tendency of forcing things to happen for the sake of lofty melodrama around the two teachers' hindrances, driving the story in disheartening directions -- mostly involving Marcus, transforming him from puckish rogue to straight-up imbecile -- that are both unnecessary and irreparably damaging to the film's overarching intentions. Worthwhile themes about the power and accountability of artistic endeavors lose their way under the shadow of Marcus' self-destructive drinking, especially after the informal reveal of the dumbfounding mistake he's made that cannot simply be shaken off. Reminiscent of Craig Zisk's The English Teacher, the line separating the depths of flawed characters and inconsistent sabotaging of the plot gets blurry.

Hence, the unavoidable romance in Words & Pictures also doesn't convince under the circumstances, despite the rapport between Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche. Owen wears the scruffy, conflicted writer well, tossing out the origins of words and credibly projecting the demeanor of an emotional drunk, like a tattered alter ego of Dead Poets Society's John Keating. Binoche struggles in the crippled artist's skin, leaving the audience uncertain if she's receptive to relationships while combating Rheumatoid arthritis, but that internal conflict's unique enough to embrace her temperament as she relearns how to paint. Their union, however, seems unreasonable in the story's context: despite Marcus' incessant pursuit and their flirtatious banter about prose and artistry, the chemistry between Owen and Binoche seems better engineered for professional camaraderie than crossing over to intimacy. That awkwardness lingers as Words & Pictures compulsively reaches its zenith of creative debate, weakened integrity, and unlikely romance: an unearned ceasefire that, despite noble intentions, ends up tongue-tied and out of focus.

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