Mark Reviews Movies

Words and Pictures


1 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Fred Schepisi

Cast: Clive Owen, Juliette Binoche, Bruce Davison, Navid Negahban, Amy Brenneman, Valerie Tian, Adam DiMarco, Josh Ssettuba, Christian Scheider, Janet Kidder

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

Running Time: 1:51

Release Date: 5/23/14 (limited); 6/6/14 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | June 5, 2014

As one might gather from the title, Words and Pictures is ostensibly about a debate between the merits of words and pictures. There could be a temptation to turn a written review of this particular example of an essentially visual medium into an extension of that debate, and if that sounds like a stupid idea to you, then you're way ahead of the game.

Watching this movie, there's part of us that hopes screenwriter Gerald Di Pego is also ahead of the game. Maybe the moment where the art teacher at a college preparatory school counters the English teacher's assertion that words are better than pictures with that old chestnut, "A picture is worth a thousand words," is just a gag. Maybe the English teacher offering the art teacher a chance to respond in pictorial form to a poem he has written so that the students can judge which is more effective is knowingly trite. Maybe these characters aren't sparring partners on the level of two college students who, having spent a week in Philosophy 101, decide late one night to determine the greater workings of the universe.

Have you ever listened to that kind of debate? If you haven't, it should be inherently apparent that such a conversation is only fun for the participants. We expect these characters to be smarter than the debate at the heart of the story, and if they aren't, we at least hope they'll be as competent as their back stories imply they should be.

Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) is a professional writer. He's been published a few times, although not for many years at the point where the movie finds him, teaching at this prep school with a classroom full of bored students. They are so uninspired that only one of his students quotes Whitman in addressing him as "my Captain." That kid, as it turns out, is a misogynistic, racist, and bullying creep, and yes, the subplot that results from this seemingly unnecessary information—in which the student's harassment of a female classmate escalates—is handled in an even more ham-fistedly awkward way than the central words/pictures argument.

The art teacher is Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche), a professional painter who has taken the job after her rheumatoid arthritis hinders her ability to paint. She's her students' toughest critic, who challenges them with open-ended questions about the definition of art (Is it skill, emotion, or a combination of the two?) and rudimentary advice (Never be fully satisfied with your work).

It should be obvious to anyone that the professional relationship between the two teachers will become a romantic one, because a movie that believes there is a legitimate debate to be had over whether words or pictures are better is most certainly not one that believes two people of the opposite sex can exist in close proximity without the conversation turning to romance. This is especially true of characters who appear to dislike each other, and that really means that this argument over two media boils down to something even more simplistic than it appears on the surface. It's a means of flirtation, or at least it is for Jack, who always takes the thing much further than it needs to go.

That might be because Jack is an alcoholic. He's on the cusp of losing his job, and everyone in town knows him as the guy who made a scene at the fanciest restaurant in town. His son (Christian Scheider) keeps his distance the few times Jack remembers him. Owen gets to the vulnerability at the heart of this character, especially in a scene where he finally confronts his son about his problem (He can't even bring himself look at the young man), and Binoche never allows for sentimentality in her portrayal, even with as hard as the movie tries to connect Dina's disease with Jack's.

There's something curious at play in these two performances. Whether Owen and Binoche are traditionally intelligent isn't the point (Traditional wisdom is that it's difficult to "play" smart, and both of them come across as far brighter than most of the lines they have to say), but there's an emotional intelligence to their portrayals.

The real battle, then, in Words and Pictures isn't the one between two media, as is apparent when the climactic debate arrives littered with quotes from famous people and bringing it all back to the brand of simplicity of those hypothetical college students ("It's the art, man," one of them might conclude). No, the real fight is between phony material and two actors who know better. In the movie's final laugh of dishonest reconciliation, we can almost hear them in united thought, and that thought is, "Well, this is B.S."

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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