Movie review

Refreshing 'Words and Pictures' merits a good -- but not excellent -- grade


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At a time when many adults have abandoned movies for television, it’s refreshing to encounter a romantic drama such as “Words and Pictures” that doesn’t revolve around vulgar language or raunchy behavior — although a man gets soused on vodka more than once.

'Words and Pictures’

Starring: Clive Owen, Juliette Binoche.

Rating: PG-13 for sexual material including nude sketches, language and some mature thematic material.


I just wish the script were as elegant, original and engaging as the passages from William Shakespeare, John Updike, Ian McEwan and other literary lions regularly quoted by English teacher Jack Marcus (Clive Owen). 

The divorced father works at a Maine prep school where he is on thin ice: He regularly arrives late, was banned from a local restaurant due to his drinking, and doesn’t grade and return papers in timely fashion. The published, once heralded author hasn’t written anything of note in some time and supervises a school magazine targeted for elimination.  

He loves language and wordplay, though, attempting to engage his reluctant colleagues in a game of coming up with increasingly complex multisyllabic words in alphabetical fashion. He tries to relate to students by calling a haiku an early tweet and asks them to write “one sentence that elevates human kind.”  

When Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche) joins the faculty as an honors art teacher, Jack finds a foil who tells her students, “The words are lies, the words are traps,” and images trump prose. She is a celebrated artist struggling with rheumatoid arthritis, which makes such tasks as unbuttoning her blouse at day’s end or painting as she would like a challenge. 

Jack and Dina fight and flirt and freeze the other out as he declares a war of sorts between words and pictures and engages the students as well. It’s the sort of battle you might only find at a small, elite school, where academics are prized and everything takes on heightened importance. Imagine the sort of enthusiasm and passion that a Steelers school visit might engender and then transfer it to a heady competition. 

That’s not enough to carry a movie, though, so Jack has a knotty relationship with his writing and his college-age son, his love affair with chilled vodka sours, and he and Dina are at odds over a student dispute proving artwork can wound as much as words. 

"Words and Pictures,” directed by Fred Schepisi (“It Runs in the Family,” “A Cry in the Dark,” “Roxanne”) and penned by novelist, screenwriter and former high school teacher Gerald DiPego, celebrates the ability of great art to move, uplift and inspire us. 

Ms. Binoche (“Chocolat,” “The English Patient”) actually paints on film with quick-drying acrylics and makes Dina both formidable and privately vulnerable. A bearded, bespectacled Mr. Owen invests Jack with intelligence, charm balancing bad-boy behavior and the ability to cry convincingly when he fears his failings will cost him a loved one. 

However, Bruce Davison’s history teacher is underused, and Amy Brenneman’s character as a school board member is poorly defined. The movie is largely predictable and the thread about one student harassing another (ending in a hasty, parent-free expulsion decree) seems designed to inject some additional tension and pad the movie to 116 minutes.

If “Words and Pictures” were a student assignment, it would get a better than passing grade but also a notation that it needs some revisions before it nears territory meriting an A.

Opens today at AMC-Loews at the Waterfront. 

 


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.

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