Rarely has a serious, well-intentioned movie created so vast a gap between intention and achievement as “Words and Pictures.”
It wants us to recognize the effects inspirational teachers have on students, the transformative power of art, the ability humans have to rebound from desperate situations. But it’s so clunkily assembled that it trips over its own feet time after time.
Its two virtues, Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen, shine through the murk. She brings dark humor and emotional intensity to Dina Delsanto, an internationally famous painter who comes to teach art to honors students at Croydon School. He shows tenderness and weakness, qualities we don’t associate with his tough characters, as Jack Marcus, the burned-out English honors teacher who takes an interest in her.
Writer Gerald Di Pego gives them both multiple handicaps. She hasn’t had a relationship with a man in years, chronic pain makes her short-tempered and aloof, and rheumatoid arthritis prevents her from painting as she once did. He’s an alcoholic whose writing talent dissipated long ago, he’s estranged from his son and daughter-in-law, and most of his associates show kindly contempt for him.
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But it’s hard to root for teachers when they’re bad teachers. He doesn’t grade homework, humiliates his class (not that some members don’t deserve it) and regularly shows up late; she bullies kids under the guise of encouragement and thinks every student should have exactly her attitude toward art.
The story would be easier to believe if every problem weren’t smoothed out as easily as a wrinkle in a cotton shirt. Di Pego writes clumsily: A smart character suspected of a crime makes a stupid mistake in public after successfully escaping detection. The school’s so-called “war” between words and pictures culminates in an obvious, uninteresting way. Meanwhile, director Fred Schepisi keeps things chugging along at mid-tempo. (It’s a mid-tempo endeavor altogether.)
That may be fine for the target audience; Di Pego and Schepisi are both in their 70s and have made a film for their peers. Some moviegoers will be grateful for any wish-fulfillment story without sex or violence, “the kind people used to watch in the old days.” Schepisi and Di Pego remember those kinds of films – so do I – and aimed to make one. But trying hard doesn’t lift a movie above mediocrity.