In Words And Pictures, Jack Marcus (Clive Owen), an acclaimed writer, and Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche), a celebrated painter, both hold day jobs at a prep school—he leads honors English while she handles honors art. Dina is a new arrival at the school, and though she takes an immediate dislike to the needling, word-obsessed Jack, they share compatible teaching styles. Both of them favor curricula so lofty, challenging, and far-reaching that they fail to cohere as lessons—especially not lessons that would take up 40 minutes to an hour every day (the issue of whether either of them teaches more than one class per day is not really explored). This makes them perfect movie classes—those periods where the important stuff always seems to happen in the first five minutes or just before a ringing-bell cutoff.
Yet, despite that broadness, Words And Pictures has a better feel for the classroom—specifically for classrooms run by prickly and strong-willed educators—than a lot of school-set films. Neither an inspirational do-gooder nor an embittered grump, Jack comes across as a talented if disorganized teacher, fueled both by passion for language and self-loathing over his own blocked writing. He also drinks to excess outside his job—and sometimes during it, on his lunch break. Restless and irritable, Jack starts an arbitrary but student-engaging “war” with Dina, pitting their two honors classes against each other to determine whether words or pictures are superior tools of expression.
Words And Pictures is supposed to be divided, as equally as its title, between these two characters. But Owen’s performance as a man who values his own faux-sophistication even as he goes to seed overpowers Binoche, leaving the movie lopsided. Dina is plagued by arthritis that comprises her ability to paint; her body threatens to fail her greatest passion. Even though her defining problem is arguably even more serious than Jack’s alcoholism, Binoche plays Dina’s pain with cutesy tics: using a low, dopey voice for sarcasm; cracking lame jokes; barking put-downs from off-screen; even blowing a raspberry at one point. He’s a loudmouthed problem drinker and she’s a tough, beautiful artist—yet, she’s the one whose romantic appeal to her potential partner remains a mystery.
The movie’s own words and pictures are more balanced, for better and worse. Just as the screenplay mixes convincing classroom details with simplified contrivances (like the odd notion that a fancy private high school would hire a renowned writer to goose their literary magazine—then threaten said magazine with budget cuts, because he’s not writing enough of it himself), veteran director Fred Schepisi shows both visual competence and a limited bag of tricks. Seemingly half of the movie’s shots are slow push-ins, often (but not exclusively) used for mounting tension as the movie cuts between over-the-shoulder shots in conversations. It’s effective at first but less so as the movie wears on, repeatedly nudging the audience to lean in for insights that never materialize. Yet, the movie has its moments: the background of Jack’s frayed relationship with his son Tony (Christian Scheider), for example, is sketched through a single heartbreaking, non-histrionic phone call. Amid the movie class overreaching into both light comedy and big melodrama, Words And Pictures occasionally grabs onto something affecting.