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Words and Pictures

If you want to see what two crackerjack not-so-old pros can do with somewhat iffy material, catch Fred Schepisi’s Words and Pictures. Clive Owens and Juliette Binoche don’t entirely escape the periodic drag of the drearier mundanities in Gerald DiPego’s script, but they seize their chances to keep them at bay.

Owens is Jack, a theatrically challenging instructor of English at an elite private New England high school. Beneath his creatively provocative classroom goads to his cynical, disengaged senior honors students (thoughtfully including both a token black and Asian, but not Hispanic, presence), his career and life are showing wear and tear. His drunken excesses have got him banned from the town’s most respectable watering hole and his own writing gifts seem to have deserted him. (In this film, even high school English teachers are subject to the publish-or-perish regime.) His future is not looking bright.

When Dina (Binoche), a successful painter afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis, arrives to teach an honors art course, Jack is intrigued. He tries in his playfully provocative way to engage her, but she fends him off. A rivalry ensues when he learns she told her class—which is conveniently also his—“Don’t trust the words” because they’re “traps and lies.” Genuinely dismayed, he proposes a school-wide contest to show whether it’s fine-art images or words that are more powerful.

It’s the movie’s conceit that Jack and Dina’s intellectual clash inspires their students, and eventually their mutual attraction. Words and Pictures is a romantic comedy with intellectual pretenses, but it’s the former element that works best in the stars’ expert hands. Owens is apparently loose but he’s assured and agile. Binoche’s Dina is affectingly self-protective, and a little flinty, but honest. (Dina’s paintings are actually Binoche’s work and they’re at least interesting.)

At its best the movie has a warm but snappy vibe. (Dina tells Jack she hasn’t dated men in years, by choice, and he responds, “Theirs?”) But it’s diverted and weighted down by some high-minded banalities and occasional turns to soggy sentimentality. After personal deterioration and partial redemption (particularly his), things are wrapped up with some flattening vacuities about art’s power to “elevate” us. By then, the wit and charge have been swamped by make-nice sententiousness.

Watch the trailer for Words and Pictures

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