The biggest problem with Words and Pictures is that it’s really dumb. That can be an asset to some films, but for a romantic drama directed at grown-up, literate audiences, it tends to be a hindrance. This movie is produced by the Dallas-based firm of Lascaux Films, which was co-founded by former movie critic Gary Cogill. Much as I like to see critics go into the fields that they write about and do well in them, this isn’t one of those times.
Clive Owen plays Jack Marcus, an honors English teacher at an exclusive New England prep school who was a literary star when the school took him on but has since devolved into a drunken wreck who’s on thin ice with his employers. What jolts him out of his downward spiral is the arrival of Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche), a star artist who joins the faculty after her old school was closed. When the crotchety art teacher tells her new students that words are lies and that only art can reveal the truth, Jack takes it as a personal affront and challenges his students to prove her wrong.
Even though this debate is incredibly stupid, and even though it’s conducted on stupid terms by the two teachers involved, and even though it really involves only the 10 or 15 students who are in both teachers’ classes, somehow it sweeps up the entire school population. All the improbabilities notwithstanding, we could still believe in this setup if Jack and Delsanto (he insists on calling her by her surname) were inspiring presences in the classroom. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t realize that they both suck at teaching. Instead of offering encouragement, they’re both given to browbeating the students whenever they fail to be as brilliant as John Updike or Claude Monet. They seem not to give a crap about the kids, and while Delsanto has a halfway decent reason for this since she’s battling crippling rheumatoid arthritis, it’s still not something that’s likely to light a fire under an impressionable teenager.
When they’re not busy setting bad examples for the kids, they’re flirting with each other in a hostile, sarcastic way, with Jack randomly and annoyingly challenging Delsanto to come up with five-syllable words starting with different letters of the alphabet. If Gerald Di Pego’s script had been sharper, someone would have sprung the word “nonalcoholic” on Jack, especially since he seems to swig vodka by the gallon. Jack eventually does recognize that he has a drinking problem, but we’re given no clue as to why. Is he creatively blocked? Burned out by teaching? Or does he just think that drinking is what writers are supposed to do? The actors are probably the main draw here, but they’re both performing at well below their best.
I imagine that somewhere at this school there’s a really sad music teacher playing a cello alone in his music room and wondering, “What about me?” After watching Words and Pictures, I wanted to join him.
Words and Pictures
Starring Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen. Directed by Fred Schepisi. Written by Gerald Di Pego. Rated PG-13.