The innocuous romantic-comedy drama Words and Pictures strives to create an interesting debate about text versus image. And it does as two teachers—Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) and Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche)—initiate a “war” at their school that challenges their students to express themselves in new ways. For Jack’s honors English pupils, it is to create new words. For Dina’s honors art students, it is create something visually emotional.
The competition stimulates something in the lives of the teachers as well. Jack is a functioning alcoholic with an estranged son and a career on the line. His literary magazine is threatened with being taken out of print, and his position at the school is under review. He has not produced any new writing of merit, and the board, represented by Elspeth (Amy Brenneman), wants him to produce a work that will remind them of the valuable award-winning writer he once was.
Dina is also grappling with lost talent. Suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, she is a successful painter who is not able to create the art she used to because of her disability. However, inspired in part by Jack’s arrogance, she starts to conceive of a new way to paint.
Words and Pictures begins nimbly, alternating between these two parallel characters who (as in every good rom-com) turn their loathing into love. The competitive nature of their relationship—they tease each other with insults as they play a multisyllabic word game—is amusing verbal jousting. What is more, when they interact with their students, both exhibit qualities that reveal their true natures. It soon becomes evident that Jack is perhaps too cavalier in his treatment of Swint (Adam DiMarco), an obnoxious student, while Dina is dedicated and impassioned in her mentoring a sensitive young artist, Emily (Valeria Tian).
While the film draws viewers in by showing these characters and their strengths and weaknesses, it stumbles badly once the couple gets together. That a terrific “seduction” scene is followed by a fight between the lovers in par for the rom-com course, but the film stacks the deck against Jack—he needs to get his come-uppance for coasting through his life and work. Unfortunately, that burden sits squarely on the saintly Dina’s shoulders, as she must elevate both Jack’s character and the film as well. It is too great a task for the Oscar-winning actress, who is sabotaged by the mediocre script, but to her credit, Binoche is absolutely radiant here. She skillfully portrays her character’s disability, and spars well with her co-star Owen with noticeable élan. His “charms” (or quirks) may annoy some of the characters, but he does express his zeal for words and language well. Owen is maybe a bit hammy in his contrived drunken moments, but he somehow manages to make Jack a rather winsome loser.
Words and Pictures is strongest when it makes its arguments about how people communicate what they think and feel. But the film’s dialogue, about the art of words and the beauty of images, only scratches the surface of a greater debate. Alas, the film ultimately prefers to focus on the drama surrounding Jack and Dina’s coupling rather than the greater debate, which is far less engaging despite the talented actors’ noblest efforts.
Words and Pictures opens today in Philly area theaters.