by Sam Fragoso
From the opening frame to the closing credits it’s clear that Words and Pictures is not too concerned with either of its eponymous art forms. Insipid words and aesthetically unremarkable pictures occupy Fred Schepisi’s sluggish and slight romantic-comedy.
Cast as the two potential love interests are Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche, a pair high school professors at a private school in New England. Neither teachers by trade, both Jack (Owen) and Dina (Binoche) were similarly heralded as innovative artists in their respective mediums once upon a time: he a poet, she a painter.
But their accomplishments seem to be a thing of the past now as they both are undergoing bouts of artistic stagnation. This stagnation is worsened by Jack’s alcoholism and Dina’s osteoporosis.
It’s in these opening sequences that Words and Pictures tactfully captures the pain and suffering of artistic stasis – especially when that stasis refuses to dissipate and becomes seemingly permanent. Gerald Di Pego’s uninspired script quickly shifts gears though, instead focusing its attention on Jack and Dina’s efforts as educators (he teaches honors English, she honors Art). In an attempt to galvanize a generation of Millennials glued to their electronics, the two wage war against one another: Words vs. Pictures.
From there the film launches into a battle of the arts, allowing Owen and Binoche to inspire and inform their students about the power of the written word and the picture. Monologues about each are delivered aplenty – some with more fervor and insight than others. Spirited debates are had – the type you, unfortunately, would rarely find in most contemporary high school classrooms.
However, by about minute 15 something becomes readily apparent to the viewer: the individuals portraying these prep school high schoolers are really, really awful actors and actresses. Scarcely have I been exposed to such uniformly atrocious over-acting amongst young thespians. None of the students, a few of whom have names and backstories, are played with anything resembling gusto, nuance or authenticity.
These characters have all been bestowed one defining characteristic (either annoying, erudite, precocious, innocent or petulant), and the actors make sure to stick within the rigid parameters of Pego’s script. Unfortunately, this amateurism is only exacerbated when sharing a scene with an actress like Binoche, who truly envelopes herself into a film that doesn’t deserve her talents.
And yet there are moments – slivers, really – that provide a glimpse into what this film could be. Exchanges about art and aging between Jack and Dina signal the type of mature and romantic film Words and Pictures so desperately aspires to be. Sadly, no matter how much charisma and goodwill Binoche and Owen inject into this project, the film remains enervated and lifeless.
Still, it’s baffling to me that a movie as mediocre as this contains pieces of art as profound as Dina’s paintings or a line like “If we could understand each other, there would be no art.” There’s perceptible potential percolating beneath the surface here. It’s a pity neither the words nor pictures ever come through.
The Upside: Owen, Binoche and a reciting of the Constitution.
The Downside: The students. The bloody students.
On the side: The paintings Binoche’s character shows were actually completed by the actress herself.