The pen may be mightier than the sword, but if a picture is worth a thousand words, who would win in a duel? That dialectical dilemma sets the stage for “Words and Pictures,” a highbrow romantic comedy that pits Clive Owen’s eccentric English teacher against Juliette Binoche’s disabled painter in a battle for the hearts and minds of their students — and, of course, each other. This kind of turf war between passion and reason, intellect and intimacy, is old hat for director Fred Schepisi, who plowed similar ground to sparkling effect in films like “Roxanne” and “Six Degrees of Separation” (even the Albert Einstein piffle “I.Q.”). But this time out, both the words and the pictures are surprisingly flaccid, largely due to Gerald DiPego’s literate but hopelessly contrived screenplay and direction that lacks Schepisi’s usual snap. Toronto pickup for Roadside Attractions should perform just OK with arthouse bluehairs.
Broadly speaking, Owen and Binoche’s characters here could be personifications of the double-sided Kandinsky canvas that occupied a central metaphorical perch in “Six Degrees”: on one side a formally rigorous geometric pattern, on the other a free-form abstraction. Looking like the latest member of the scruffy, disheveled fraternity of academics that also includes the Michael Douglas character from “Wonder Boys” and Michael Caine’s from “Educating Rita,” Owen plays Jack Marcus, a lauded poet who hasn’t written a word in years, now resigned to teaching the next generation at elite New England prep school Croyden. Then along comes Diana Delasanto (Binoche), an Italian-born figurative abstract painter felled by Rheumatoid Arthritis, the latest addition to the Croyden faculty.
She’s known colloquially as “The Icicle,” one of Owen’s colleagues (Bruce Davison) confides, a sentiment Diana confirms when she introduces herself to her class as “not the kind of teacher you’re going to come back to visit when you’re all grown up, with a box of chocolates and a Hallmark card.” Well, maybe not, but Hallmark sentiments — of both the greeting-card and the “Hall of Fame” TV-movie variety — are precisely what “Words and Pictures” rarely rises above.
DiPego, a veteran big-studio scribe (whose credits include the John Travolta hit “Phenomenon”) aiming to do something weightier here, hasn’t written characters so much as stand-ins for a series of half-baked pseudo-intellectual ideas. So Owen lectures his class about the ability of words to form original images (quoting from Updike, McEwan, et al.) while Binoche tells hers that painting can express feelings that lie beyond words. In contrast to most pics of this type, the students themselves remain a somewhat dazed, inarticulate mass. Owen even refers to them as “droids.” Add to this both characters’ pesky afflictions — her RA, his writer’s block and penchant for the bottle — and you have a movie that racks up some pretty egregious fees in excess symbolic baggage. (Owen even gets an estranged college-age son to boot.)
Schepisi and his highly capable cast do what they can with the material, and there’s some fleeting charm in Binoche and Owen’s barbed courtship, which strives for Tracy-Hepburn but ends up somewhere closer to Hanks-Ryan. There’s only so much that can be done, though, with a movie that forces Owen to sit before a blank computer screen waiting for the poetic muses to call, while Binoche hobbles around on a walking stick, fighting her own body as she slathers paint across canvas. (The paintings, which were actually created by the actress herself, are not at all unimpressive.)
In cinematic terms, the movie is almost all talk and few memorable images. Despite the presence of longtime Schepisi d.p. Ian Baker, the widescreen HD lensing has a flat, washed-out look, though vet production designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein had done a fine job appointing the pic’s prep-school milieu (shot in Vancouver doubling for Maine).