Starring: Clive Owen, Juliette Binoche, Keegan Connor Tracey
Directed by: Fred Schepisi (“The Eye of the Storm”)
Written by: Gerald Di Pego (“Little Murder”)
As the much talked about battle between words and pictures takes place between the flamed out, alcoholic cool English teacher Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) and the once revered but hampered by arthritis crotchety art teacher Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche) at a school assembly, we are almost two hours into an exhausting tale. It’s a moment that is supposed to hit hard and resonate, but given the preceding events, it misses on nearly every level, a common theme in “Words and Pictures.”
When teacher Jack Marcus finds his job on the line, he engages new art teacher Dina Delsanto in a contest of what is more impactful and important: words or pictures. As an effort to inspire and engage the students, Jack also hopes that the results reflect better on him in order to save his job. In the process, he finds himself strangely attracted to the stern Delsanto and sets the two on an unexpected journey both romantically and head to head in a battle of the arts.
While there are some decent scenes of the two together, the relationship between Owen and Binoche is oddly mismatched. Owen, who is just not believable as a romantic comedy lead, serves much better in the dark scenes in which he is playing drunk and the occasional classroom scene and Binoche is surprisingly unaffecting. There’s an almost cartoonish quality to the character of Delsanto who is so stereotypically icy, yet completely immature in her degradations such as when she blows raspberries in Owen’s direction.
If the film had been about just Binoche and Owen’s characters it would have been lackluster enough. Instead, screenwriter Gerald Di Pego insists on jamming in subplots that don’t fit. The worst of the bunch is story about an aggressive student who tries to bully a female student into liking him. It’s a plot line that is a complete misfire and goes nowhere while feeling false and off-putting.
There are plenty of other examples of plotlines that are ill-fitting, including a relationship with Delsanto and a favorite student and Jack’s relationship with his son, but the real problem is that the film suffers even when it is just Jack and Delsanto together. There are some good individual scenes that romanticize literary works and Owen and Binoche do occasionally work well together, but as an entire piece, “Words and Pictures” juggles too many stories that don’t work and drags on and on without any real payoff.