By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Words and pictures now get their chance to impersonate the Hatfields and the McCoys. Or maybe they always have.
Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche co-star as curmudgeonly but inspiring middle-aged educators in the brainy-rather-than-zany romantic comedy Words and Pictures.
Owen plays Jack Marcus, a popular, sardonic English professor whose students refer to him affectionately as “Mr. Marc.” He teaches at Croyden Prep, a fictional upscale school in Maine, and drinks too much.
A once-successful writer who, thanks to a severe case of writer’s block, hasn’t actually published anything of interest in years, he loves anything verbal, likes his students, but feels deflated if not defeated by what he sees as their obsessive devotion to social media and shallow dedication to getting high grades.
He wouldn’t be caught dead tweeting or texting.
His lament: where are the champions of the old-fashioned written word, which has gotten lost in this era of instant messaging?
Binoche is an art instructor, new to the school, named Dina Delsanto. A victim of rheumatoid arthritis, she’s a well-respected abstract painter whose belief in the power of images to communicate in an instant is unshakeable, but whose abiding pain makes it difficult but certainly not impossible for her to paint.
Thus the walls she has erected to protect herself that have quickly earned her the nickname “The Icicle.”
The two teachers represent differing viewpoints, to be sure, and they banter if not argue about it. But there is also an undeniable attraction between them.
With his job-threatening performance review right around the corner, and having heard from his students that their new art teacher has warned them to distrust words because they are essentially “traps and lies,” Jack proposes that they wage a war between their specialties (or at least a words-employing debate about literature versus art) to boost interest in their subjects among the otherwise distracted and oblivious English and art students in their honors classes.
Naturally, in the battle over which conveys greater meaning, he champions words over pictures while she bows at the altar of pictures, every one of which is surely worth about a thousand of those other things.
Hence the film’s title: add music to it, come to think of it, and you’ve got a formula for movies.
Gifted veteran Australian director Fred Schepisi (The Devil’s Playground, Roxanne, A Cry in the Dark, Six Degrees of Separation, IQ, It Runs in the Family), working from a literate screenplay by Gerald DiPego, balances his words and pictures with sensitive skill, letting ideas, notions, and perceptions bounce stimulatingly off the walls.
But he still plants his film firmly on the shoulders of Binoche and Owen. In so doing, he perhaps shortchanges the students, whom we don’t get to know individually almost at all.
But his confidence in his two shining stars is amply rewarded. Owen and Binoche, reliably effective, do the two damaged characters and their viewpoints proud, and have a natural chemistry as well, providing the film with warts-and-all, three-dimensional leads who are both convincing and easy to root for.
Owen handles witty, sarcastic rejoinders like a master chef brandishing a carving knife, while Binoche reminds us once again of her ability to instantaneously win over an audience.
And we, no questions asked, want these two folks to end up together.
So is the film formulaic? Well, yeah (or, at least, maybe so), but the film delivers in the way intended and applies the formula surely and satisfyingly.
And by the way, all the paintings on display as examples of the work of Dina Delsanto, as well as the paintings worked on in real time in front of us, are actual paintings by none other than accomplished artist Juliette Binoche. How’s that for a Renaissance woman who can also speak and act in multiple languages?
So we’ll picture 3 stars out of 4 for this likably thought-provoking, academic romcom. Words and Pictures overcomes its strictures.