'Words and Pictures': Paintbrush vs. pen at privileged prep school
Not humans-versus-aliens Edge of Tomorrow war. Not humans-versus-radioactive-monsters Godzilla war. Not even frat-boys-versus-married-couple-with-kid Neighbors war.
In Words and Pictures, the battle is far more erudite and refined.
A kind of Tracy/Hepburn rom-com with a Dead Poets Society backdrop and dollops of human failing for added drama, Words and Pictures stars Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche - a matchup that makes you want to like Fred Schepisi's film, even when it becomes impossible to do so.
Owen is Jack Markus, a poet and fiction writer who has settled into Croydon Prep, teaching English honors to privileged teens. At lunch, he heads for the parking lot, sidles into his car, and drinks from a Thermos of vodka. Yes, he has a problem.
Binoche is Dina Delsanto, newly arrived at the Maine school to take the atelier and teach the kids a thing or two about bringing inner life to their life drawings, a bit of personal pain to their paintings. Speaking of which (pain), Dina has rheumatoid arthritis. Her condition is so bad she's had to abandon her New York career. With her wrist braces, crutch, and meds, she can't maneuver around her canvases, let alone get the oils and acrylics where she wants them.
From their first introduction in the teachers' lounge, Jack and Dina are at odds. When she tells her young charges not to trust words - "words are lies, words are traps" - well, Jack is rankled. After all, he's all about the stuff - Ian McEwan, Jeanette Winterson, John Updike, haikus.
"Words are truth!" he declares.
So begins an epic throwdown, with the kids lining up in one camp or the other.
"This insane war is energizing our students," declares a giddy Jack, who, of course, is beginning to tumble for Dina. He also is in danger of losing his job because 1) he caused a drunken ruckus at the only classy restaurant in town, and 2) he hasn't written a new poem in years.
Yes, his future hinges on a few stanzas of verse. Talk about the power of words!
Owen, sporting writerly glasses and an American accent, brings earnestness and an addled charm to the role. Jack's descent into alcoholic rage and self-ruin is all too inevitable - as is the possibility of redemption - but the actor tweaks the scenarios with nuance. He just about pulls it off.
Binoche, too, shows more heart and heartache than the script deserves. And Dina's paintings - the old ones, and the new ones that she has started anew, inspired by, well, you know who - are the work of the actress herself. A few are quite beautiful.
This being a story set in a school, there's bullying to contend with and cliquish goings on, in both the student body and the faculty. Jack's rather intimate former relationship with a board member (Amy Brenneman) becomes an issue, too. Screenwriter Gerald Di Pego addresses lofty notions of art, and the literary arts, with plenty of zeal, if not with much finesse.
And Jack stares at the words on his computer screen. And Dina stares at the canvas with its splashes of color. Words? Pictures? Choose your side.
Words and Pictures **1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Fred Schepisi. With Juliette Binoche, Clive Owen, Amy Brenneman, Valerie Tian, Bruce Davison. Distributed by Roadside Attractions.
Running time: 1 hour, 51 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (sex, profanity, alcohol, adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Five, AMC Neshaminy, AMC Plymouth Meeting, and Carmike Ritz Center/NJ.