Formulaic and predictable, this old-fashioned love story between two teachers is saved by the mildly entertaining performances of Clive Owen and Juliet Binoche, paired as two hard-nosed teachers drawn into a faux prep school battle over which is more powerful–the pen or the brush. Falling into the cute pattern that mimics the great comedy teams of Tracy-Hepburn or Gable-Colbert, wherein the initial antagonism slowly melts into romance, “Words and Pictures” is the new release (it premiered at last September’s Toronto International Film Festival) from Australian director Fred Schepisi, whose best comedy remains “Roxanne,” a modern-day retelling of the Cyrano de Bergerac story, way back in 1987.
Those of us with long memories recall Schepisi’s brilliant drama “The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith” almost 40 years ago, and its blunt look at the mistreatment of the Aborigines in the 19th century. It was America’s first look at a then new director (his first feature, 1976’s “The Devil’s Playground,” took five years before arriving on U.S. shores), and was based on a novel by Thomas Keneally, best known as the author of “Schindler’s List.” Schepisi also directed Paul Newman in his last role, the award-winning television adaptation of “Empire Falls” (2005). Of late, he’s unfortunately had more misfires, including “The Eye of the Storm” (2011) and “It Runs in the Family,” his 2003 addition to the dysfunctional family genre, than actual hits.
“Words and Pictures” treads all-too-familiar middling ground at the upper crust Croyden Prep, a New England gathering hole for mixing bowl students. Fiercely independent ice queen Dina Delsanto (Binoche), an abstract painter who requires frequent medical attention because of her rheumatoid arthritis, has moved from New York to handle A.P. Art, while the ruffled, tardy, disillusioned, Vodka-slugging Jack Marcus is a washed-up poet with blockage issues, trying to finding inner inspiration while also hoping to instill some within the students in his English Honors class. Casual conversation showcases Jack’s frustration with his students, “We’re teaching in the era of the undead.” But, as outlined in former high school teacher Gerald DiPego’s stock screenplay (apparently written at least 7 years ago), there are abrupt mood shifts that pickle the movie as it flits back and forth from its darker moments (spiteful alcoholic over-indulgences, father-son anxieties, plagiarism, debilitating illness issues, social media bullying) while rebounding in ensuing scenes with too much brightness, reaffirmation, and cuteness (a multi-syllabic word game, casual sex, rehab relapses plucked from “28 Days,” and the cloying, fake war-ending confrontation).
While Owen and Binoche do their best to support this sinking ship, the rest of the crew rise and fall with the material provided. Amy Brenneman has little more than a cameo as one of Jack’s former one-night-stands and current board member at the school, where the teacher’s job hangs in jeopardy. Navid Negahban hangs up his terrorist garb as Abu Nazir on Showtime’s “Homeland” for a nice dress suit and a concerned demeanor as the school headmaster. Bruce Davidson, back working with Schepisi (previously having collaborated on “Six Degrees of Separation”), is a compassionate history teacher trying to soothe troubled waters. Christian Scheider, son of the late Roy “Jaws” Scheider, makes an admirable, albeit brief, feature film debut as Jack’s disenchanted son. The students are a melange of no-name pretty faces, cast in Vancouver, where the film was shot.
Binoche, herself an accomplished artist, provided all the art created for her character.
Opposites attract. “Words and Pictures”? Not so much.