A contrived set-up and wild shifts in tone undercut interesting performances from two great actors
If “Which is more important — words or pictures?” sounds to you like the kind of pointless debate that a roomful of stoned college freshmen might engage in late one night, you're right. Somehow, this non-pressing issue (spoiler: they're both essential) becomes the plot driver of “Words and Pictures,” a sloppy, glossy movie that thoroughly wastes the talents of its exceedingly charismatic performers, Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen.
Their combined chemistry keeps this movie afloat far longer than it should, but not even they (and the considerable skill of director Fred Schepisi) can bring it into port.
Set at a tony New England prep school, “Words and Pictures” sets up a merry rivalry between Jack (Owen) and Dina (Binoche). Jack's a hard-drinking novelist who's never lived up to the promise of his first novel, and he's no longer the eager visionary the school once hired, even though he's the sort of pedant who likes to play word games with his colleagues and interrupt their conversations with fun facts about etymology.
Newcomer Dina is a world-renowned artist who has been stricken with rheumatoid arthritis; she valiantly attempts to paint in her condition, but her physical limitations have gotten in the way of her muse, making her short-tempered and borderline bitter.
Sensing that his job is on the line, Jack decides to fire up his students by beginning a rivalry with Dina, based on the notion that words are more important than pictures. Each uses their not-inconsiderable skills and wit to promote their own medium, and in the process, these battling co-workers come to respect one another.
If the text vs. image battle had merely remained in the background, used as a springboard to drive the characters’ actions, that would be one thing, but the screenplay by Gerald Di Pego (“Phenomenon,” “Message in a Bottle”) tediously brings it up over and over again, as though this were “A Tree Falls in a Forest: The Movie.”
That's only one of this script's massive sins; the students are mostly treated as an anonymous mass, and even the ones who are given any kind of personality are shunted off to the side until the storyline needs them. Worse still, the movie wants to be slick and breezy, making it all the more jarring when, say, Jack goes from charming-drunk to disastrous alcoholic, or when shy young female student Emily (Valerie Tian) is subjected to vicious verbal and online harassment by her peers.
“Words and Pictures” never accrues enough emotional resources to bear out the darker, heavier moments, which turns its big dramatic moves into clunky embarrassments. Worst of all, after attempting to go dark, the film then turns around and ties everything up in a nice big bow, even throwing in a contrived scene where Owen and Binoche laugh together; the moment resembles the end of an episode of “CHiPS” — all that's missing is the freeze-frame.
Still, if “Words and Pictures” has anything going for it, it's the efforts of its two leads. Binoche imbues Dina with ferocious intelligence and independence; she may be adjusting to her new circumstances, but she resolutely defies anyone to pity her. It's also worth pointing out that Binoche does a lot of actual painting here, and it looks convincing; none of that shooting-over-a-stand-in's-shoulder for her.
As for Owen, he uses his natural charm to demonstrate how Jack has managed to maintain his shambolic life for so long and gotten away with it. He seduces and then repels the audience, but the richness of this portrayal is more than this flimsy movie can bear.
The pictures are fine here – cinematographer Ian Baker, a frequent Schepisi collaborator, gives the school that honeyed, preppy glow — but the words could have used a lot more work.