No matter how you paint this picture, there’s only one word for it: Bad
Australian director Fred Schepisi has an impressive resume; he’s directed the critically acclaimed pictures Roxanne, Six Degrees of Separation, and A Cry in the Darkness, among others. So naturally it’s disheartening that his newest film, Words and Pictures, is such a disappointment, especially considering it stars two high-caliber actors – – Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche. Unfortunately, writer Gerald Di Pego (Message in a Bottle; Angel Eyes) doesn’t give them much to work with, and Schepisi’s direction seems to echo the mediocrity of Di Pego’s script.
Clive Owen plays Jack Marcus, a dynamic English teacher and writer (you can tell he’s smart by the hipster glasses he sports) at Croyden, a tony prep school in rural Maine. Juliette Binoche plays Dina Del Santo, an Italian artist of some renown who joins the faculty as a new art teacher. Of course, both have their problems. Jack is an alcoholic losing his creative edge and facing possible dismissal; Dina suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, rendering painting – her passion – nearly impossible. But, naturally, both are brilliant and respected by their students; the film resembles Dead Poets Society a bit, both in the way it portrays student-teacher relationships (a student even calls Jack “My Captain”), as well as in its emphasis on the power of literature and art.
The problem is that Schepisi and Di Pego seem to be operating from the kitchen-sink school of filmmaking: they throw a little of everything into the picture, which results in a scattered, over-the-top melodrama, in which a great many issues are presented, but none are explored well or with any depth. Alcoholism, chronic disease, father/son conflict, school bullying, the creative process and burn-out, art vs. writing, coming-of-age angst, and middle-age romance – they are all here.
By far the most interesting element of this soapy potpourri is the art vs. words debate (hence the film’s title); a summer movie that is fundamentally trying (although “trying” is the key word) to be about ideas rather than action is quite refreshing. After Dina tells her students that she thinks art is more powerful than words, Jack decides to start a “war” between the art and English students, culminating in an assembly at which the students present their arguments about which elevates us more: pictures, or words? The discussion – mostly played out in heated arguments between Jack and Dina – is indeed an interesting and profound subject worthy of debate, but the film can hardly be considered a deeply intellectual exercise. By the time the picture ends, unfortunately, the philosophical musings end up forgotten and buried under the weight of the overly dramatic narrative.
Owen and Binoche both seem a bit embarrassed throughout the picture, as if they know they are slumming in what amounts to a virtual Hallmark channel movie. Owen, at least, gets a couple of strong moments to show some real emotional depth and prove he’s more than just an action-movie pretty face. Binoche, though, is one note, playing angry, hostile, and defensive for the majority of the picture. She may just be reacting to the cheesy dialogue, however, so it’s hard to fault her too much.
And a word of warning: this film contains the single most fake, awkward, forced scene of joint laughter perhaps ever recorded in a moving picture. If you’re into cringe-worthy moments for some reason, you may want to duck into the theater just for that scene alone, but that’s hardly a recommendation. Instead, here are a few words with real, affecting power: Save. Your. Money.
Words and Pictures opens today at the Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley.