Monday, July 27, 2015

Words and Pictures (2014) [PG-13] ***

A film review by Jeff Baker for The Oregonian, June 5, 2014.

Words and Pictures has more than enough of both. It's excessively wordy -- the characters never shut up and the script by Gerald Di Pego is bursting with literary allusions and quotations and nine-syllable words. And it's got lots of pictures, bold colorful paintings in brightly lit studios, and full-frame two-shots of its handsome lead actors that could hang in the kitchen or den.

It's an unusual movie, traditional and ambitious, formulaic and slightly unpredictable, and is enlivened by strong performances by Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche, rival teachers at the most loosely supervised prep school in New England. He teaches English, she teaches art, and they start as adversaries engaged in a tedious non-debate about whether words or pictures are superior. Sparks fly, and anyone who's seen a movie or watched TV in the last 75 years can guess the rest.

But there is some real friction on the road to the film’s inevitable conclusion, and it comes from the way Owen and Binoche attack their roles. Owen is a brooding, hollow-eyed Englishman whose nonchalant depth made Children of Men and Sin City better than they really are. He hasn't always seemed fully engaged in the thrillers and period dramas that have come his way the last few years, but he's all in on this one, tossing off speech after speech in an American accent that doesn't stay in one place for too long. Owen's character, Jack Marcus, is a cliché, a once-renowned poet who has lost his creative spark at the bottom of a vodka bottle and spends his class time hectoring his students about the evils of technology and giving them nonsensical assignments that he doesn't bother to grade. Owen plays his boozy desperation with a physical unpredictability that keeps everyone off balance and knocks one scene, an apology to his estranged son, out of the park.

Binoche uses her physical gifts in a different way. She's blessed with a luminous, expressive face that's more beautiful at 50 than it was at 25. (Her director, Fred Schepisi, knows it. The camera's always creeping in on Binoche and Owen, moving to close-ups as a scene progresses.) What's great about this role is she's playing an artist, Dina Delsanto, whose rheumatoid arthritis has robbed her of some of the ability -- but not the desire -- to paint. Schepisi moves the camera around and shoots Binoche from above and the side as she scoots along on a swivel chair and creates art with real passion and flair. (Binoche is a respected artist who has exhibited in galleries around the world; the paintings in the movie are hers.)

Much of Words and Pictures is second-rate. A subplot involving a sexual harassment case is both clumsily handled and superfluous. A talented supporting cast, particularly Bruce Davison and Amy Brenneman, is underused. The conclusion is preordained. Schepisi has a lengthy resume that shows a skill at working with actors (Plenty, Roxanne, Six Degrees of Separation) and a sense of social justice (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, A Cry in the Dark). He gets the most out of his stars, Owen and Binoche, but can't get anything more out of Di Pego's script than a lot of words that don't say anything more than what a bored prep school student already knows. [Baker’s rating: B-]

Labels: comedy, drama, romance



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