Words and Pictures

Directed By: Fred Schepisi

Starring: Clive Owen, Juliette Binoche, Amy Brenneman, and Keegan Connor Tracy

Movie critics can be so snarky and judgmental.  I know I'm saying this in the strangest of places — a movie review — but sometimes my fellow critics just hate a film to hate it.  As I was wrapping up my review of this weekend's Words and Pictures, I took a look at Rotten Tomatoes and saw that a film that I actually quite enjoyed sits at a lowly 40%.  I saw comments essentially espousing the notion that the film is not as smart as one would expect and that the leads are mismatched with the material.  While the film is certainly cloaked in fancy semantics and amusingly pointless lessons in etymology, I wouldn't consider this a fatal flaw for it.  All of this unnecessary animosity toward the movie motivated me to come back to rewrite my opening.  In the words of my new favorite Honors Art teacher, "To hell with them!"

Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) is an alcoholic who destroys anything and everything good in his life.  His drunken shenanigans have sabotaged his relationship with his son.  His problem with the bottle has gotten him banned from a popular local restaurant.  Now, it may cost him his job as an Honors English teacher at a top public high school.  Board member Elspeth (Amy Brenneman) has gotten wind of Marcus's drinking problem and wants to get rid of him.  It doesn't help that this published author hasn't written anything of merit in years, and his Honors English students' writings in the magazine The Lion are bland and uninspired.  Marcus now has an upcoming review, and things aren't looking terribly great for the alcoholic English instructor.

Afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis, painter Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche) has moved into town and joins the high school as its new Honors Art teacher.  She quickly makes a friend and nemesis in Jack Marcus.  While Delsanto would prefer to be left alone to try and salvage what's left of her career, Marcus just wants to play word games with her and offer up some big polysyllabic words.  While teaching her students one day, Delsanto notes that words are just lies and that pictures are the worthwhile art form.  Since many of her students are also in Marcus's class, word gets back to the English teacher.  Marcus declares war and gets the students involved.  As this war between words and pictures brews, the students are inspired and begin challenging themselves to be their best selves.  The same can be said for Marcus and Delsanto.  In Marcus's case, however, it might just save his job.

With Words and Pictures, Fred Schepisi offers us a piercing, emotional piece of cinema with a zestful energy for love, life, and art.  Though the film about high school teachers doesn't serve up meaningful intellectual discourse on what art and words are, it does offer something far more valuable, an appreciation of what they can do for us when they move and inspire us.  Schepisi makes up for the depth Words and Pictures lacks in exploring the meaning of art and literature by having fun with some rather interesting parallels in the film.  One of Marcus and Delsanto's honors students is being harassed endlessly by a boy in her class who likes her.  His antics jeopardize his place at the school.  Similarly, Marcus harasses Delsanto and frequently flirts with her in an effort to get her to come out of her hole and fight.  Though his own antics have jeopardized his place at the school as well, this war of words versus pictures may conversely rescue Marcus’s career.  The reason I call this out is because it's quite fun to watch how Schepisi uses his supporting characters to mirror the lives of his main characters.  All in all, it's just another reason to appreciate this flick.

The film's two leads are well matched.  For his part, Clive Owen steps away from the action genre to give a nuanced, layered portrayal of Honors English teacher Jack Marcus.  He can be the playful jerk spewing big meaningless words and irritating everyone around him.  He can be the drunken fool destroying everything of any worth in his life with a bottle of vodka.  He can even be the man who inspires everyone else to be their best when he's at his best.  Owen brings an invaluable versatility to his performance that really works well.  For her part as Honors Art teacher Dina Delsanto, Juliette Binoche gives us a far more linear character.  Binoche gives us a sharp-tongued artist embittered and emboldened by the hand life has dealt her.  Offering up plenty of caustic wit and profound self-loathing, she gives us a fitting opponent for Owen's Jack Marcus.  Together, the pair make one dynamic duo on screen with some great comedic and romantic chemistry.

It's clear where I stand on Words and Pictures.  It's a fun, engaging piece of cinema that elevates other often undervalued forms of art and serves as great counter-programming to the summer blockbusters raging in theaters now.  Because Schepisi doesn't take his theme and dissect it academically as a Terence Malick or a Lars von Trier might have, Words and Pictures is better for it.  You'll definitely enjoy this one.  Schepisi's latest film gets a 0.03% rating.  Have some wine coolers with this one.