I’m sorry, but I find it difficult to believe that anyone — even teachers — talk the way that Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) and Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche) do in Words and Pictures. An alleged romantic comedy/drama from director Fred Schepisi — whose Six Degrees of Separation is long behind him at this point — Words and Pictures piles on mountains of pseudo-intellectual dialogue, a clutch of conflicts and subplots that go nowhere and a contrived “war” between two different art forms that is as vague as it is silly. And all this is in the service of a love story that wants to be both poignant and screwball and ends up just leaden.
When we meet Marcus, he is lambasting his students for their lack of interest in the power of the written word, while simultaneously drowning his own sorrows in drink: a one-time literary star, he hasn’t published anything in years, his relationship with his son is barely there and he is facing a performance review from a hostile school board. Enter Delsanto, a celebrated artist who is facing her own personal crisis in the form of rheumatoid arthritis that is crippling her ability to paint. The two get off to a typically acrimonious start, slinging insults back and forth, although it’s soon clear that Marcus is intrigued by the resistant artist.
Marcus decides that the way to fire up his students — and perhaps heat things up with Delsanto — is to declare a “war” between words and pictures that will determine which is better at communicating ideas and meaning. Although the whole school gets involved in the war, not much happens until the end of the film. It’s brought up in dialogue a lot (“But what about the war?”) while we sit through a series of contined skirmishes between Marcus and Delsanto as well as other random incidents that don’t do all that much to move the story forward.
The first problem with all this is that Marcus comes across as a boorish jerk. He’s rude, loud, condescending and just plain annoying, which makes it hard to feel any empathy — which we’re supposed to eventually feel — for him as his problems come to a head. One revelation late in the story does him no favors whatsoever and seems contrived to happen just so he can fall into another tailspin from which he must climb. Delsanto comes across as equally cranky, and when the romantic sparks eventually fly, it just doesn’t seem natural at all. Both Owen and Binoche are fine, fine actors, but their work here is overly forced.
The “war” itself between the written word and the painted image just seems pointless — why should there be a war at all? The ultimate contest revolves around Marcus’ students writing something inspired by a painting done by one of Delsanto’s students — which only means that the two art forms already complement each other. We need a whole movie to tell us that?
Other subplots come and go, such as a male student who wandered off the set of Dead Poets Society (from which this film borrows a lot) bullies a girl who resists his advances; the head of the school board is a woman (Amy Brenneman) with whom Marcus once had an affair. However, it seems more like time-fillers as we plod along toward the finale and pretend to care whether Marcus will save his job and/or crack Delsanto’s emotional armor. Even those resolutions seems perfunctory.
Schepisi’s direction eventually grows annoying: he’s constantly pushing in on the actor’s faces with the camera to give all this a sense of urgency and weight that simply isn’t there. Almost none of what happens in Words and Pictures feels believable. The drama is stiff and the humor almost non-existent. Neither the words nor the pictures can do much to make these characters and this story engaging.
Words and Pictures is out in limited release.