Words and Pictures, recently released on home video, is the kind of small-scale dramatic comedy tailor-made for the cozy screen of the empty nester’s home cinema. It features the sexily rumpled Clive Owen and the beautifully tart Juliette Binoche engaging in a spirited debate about language and art, two cerebral topics unsuited to both the multiplex and the increasingly myopic arena of the art house. As an added bonus, the picture is directed by Fred Schepisi, whom devoted cinephiles will remember for the galvanizing Australian New Wave classic, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith; the baby-eating dingo thriller, A Cry in the Dark; and the supremely well-acted Six Degrees of Separation. Two smart, eminently watchable actors, a sophisticated director and a story about ideas. There is only one thing souring this perfect scenario: The movie is awful.
I don’t mean awful as in merely bad. Bad is the inexhaustible string of dysfunctional-family comedies that infect theaters like an annual bout of the flu, most of them starring the likes of Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig, Paul Rudd and other actors who should have fired their agents yesterday. No, Words and Pictures is bad in a fundamentally wrongheaded way, so tone-deaf about how the real world works and looks that it drowns it’s admirable intentions — a lively discourse on artistic engagement — beneath a tide of drippy plot contrivances and sloppily sketched supporting characters.
Owen plays an English teacher at an exceptionally tony New England prep school, the kind of place where a United Nations roster of students wear ridiculous uniforms and deliver pithy, wise-acre one-liners on cue. They look so rich they’d probably smoke their joints rolled in one-hundred dollar bills if they smoked, or drank or had sex, or do any of the things normal high-schoolers do. Instead, they are a bland and cheesy plate of cardboard cutouts spewing screenwriter Gerald Di Pego’s idea of dialogue (a quick look at this writer’s IMDB filmography reveals a rap sheet of hideously forgettable scripts). Owen is supposed to be a great and published poet and a word freak, a witty scribe who walks into the teacher’s lounge delivering uncalled for mini-lectures on the Greek root and true meaning of something someone just said. It would be like me, a devoted filmhead, discoursing on the symbolism of the potato in Bela Tarr’s austere The Turin Horse — on how it was, you know, a metaphor for the vegetative soul of the Hungarian people — every time someone invited me over to sample a roasted fingerling. What a bore!
But in Owen’s case, everyone loves his linguistic stepdances. The Great Poet! Our man in tweed! Except he hasn’t written anything in years, has published even less, and is now an alcoholic plagiarist (a simpering side-plot that goes nowhere). Along comes a foil worthy of his charm and cavalier disrespect for his own reputation, the new art teacher, a master painter in the person of Juliette Binoche. No picnic herself, she is an arrogant grouch who tells her students, “I’m not going to be your friend.” Yet everyone allowed into her studio goes so gaga over her canvases you have to ask what she is doing at this fantasy island full of acne-free preppies if her work is so renowned.
A coy series of jousting tête-á-têtes ensue between her and Owen and, in their own cute way, they manage to arouse a few bubbles of chemistry. Binoche and Owen do “smitten” pretty well, but they, as well as the avuncular Bruce Davison (in a thankless role), look like veterans trapped in an afterschool skit. When a contest between Owen’s words and Bincohe’s pictures takes over the school, a dialectical skirmish upon which rides the fate of Owen’s continued employment, Schepisi constructs it with an embarrassing laziness, as if he knows this device is dead on arrival. What happens next is that this movie, which began so promisingly with a few sprightly zings of intellectual repartee, which wanted so strongly for us to believe in its high-minded battle of wills, dies along with it.
This review appeared first on The Restless Critic blog.