“WORDS AND PICTURES” — 3 Stars — Clive Owen, Juliette Binoche, Amy Brenneman, Bruce Davison; PG-13 (sexual material including nude sketches, language and some mature thematic material)
For most of its 111 minutes, the “and” in “Words and Pictures” could be swapped with an “or” or a “vs.”
The title refers to a competition between two prep school teachers who want to determine which is more powerful: the written word or the visual image. It’s a compelling debate, but the characters making those arguments are what make “Words and Pictures” an engaging film.
Clive Owen plays Jack Marcus, an honors English teacher who also happens to be a self-destructive alcoholic. He rants at his students and drinks vodka out of a thermos in the school parking lot at lunch, mostly because the fire and enthusiasm he displayed as a young up-and-coming writer seems to have vanished. His myriad problems have left him at risk of losing his job, unless he can get it together before a pending job review from his peers.
Juliette Binoche plays Dina Delsanto, a renowned painter who arrives from the big city to take a job as an honors art instructor because rheumatoid arthritis is steadily stripping her ability to do what she loves. She’s cold and distant in order to maintain her academic authority but more to mask the tragedy and heartbreak she feels as her greatest skill is taken away from her.
Jack and Dina are adversaries from the start, both socially and formally, as they decide to engage their students in a school-wide showdown to determine the superiority of their respective fields. But their chemistry is obvious early on, and the question of “Words and Pictures” is not “will they/won’t they?” as much as, “Will each character’s inner demons destroy them before they can cross the finish line?”
Additional subplots and relationships color the narrative. One gifted student (Valerie Tian) confronts the horror of bullying disguised as affection. Jack’s relationship with his son (Christian Scheider) becomes even more strained when he realizes his own child has become the kind of writer his father will never be. Dina fights a series of contraptions and assists to find a way to paint in spite of her increasing handicap, but every step forward is met with a pair of steps back.
The competition between the teachers’ classes is inspiring to both the students and their faculty, and it frames the character narratives that emerge under the surface.
“Words and Pictures” isn’t quite a romantic comedy, and it isn’t quite a drama. You don’t have to be a teacher to love it, or middle-aged, but it helps in both points. It fits more into the mold of last year’s “Enough Said” or “Unfinished Song,” or even 2007’s “Dan in Real Life,” which also starred Binoche.
Aside from a couple of surprises along the way, director Fred Schepisi isn’t interested in wowing audiences with a twisting and turning plot. “Words and Pictures” is a character-driven piece, supported by the strong performances of its leads. Binoche brings a traditional level of class to her role, straining to maintain her composure while inner turmoil eats away from the inside. Owen gets to have a lot more fun dramatically — he spends most of the film riding the line between ruffled professor and homeless vagabond, and a late scene between Jack and his son is almost worth the price of admission on its own.
“Words and Pictures” isn’t without fault — like “The Fault in Our Stars,” the plot meanders in “nice” territory a bit too long before the narrative digs in — but it is a thoughtful film about redemption and acceptance.
“Words and Pictures” is rated PG-13 for steady profanity (including one muffled use of the F-word) and some sexual content, including nude artwork.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at woundedmosquito.com.