Here is a movie with a pair of terrific stars, Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche, stylish direction from the underrated Fred Schepisi and literate dialogue that bristles with wit. Everything about it has charm to spare and one of the most contrived screenplays imaginable. When you look over screenwriter Gerald Dipego’s credits – Phenomenon (1996), Angel Eyes (2001), The Forgotten (2004) – this is easy to understand. It’s also hard not to cut him a little slack for the richly rewarding dialogue he crafted along with this frequently unwieldy story line. This is a case where there’s so much to like about Words and Pictures that it’s easy to forgive its undeniable shortcomings. That’s even more true in light of how little we see of Clive Owen these days, not to mention of Schepisi.
The film centers on Jack Marcus (Owen), the once-shining star teacher at an upscale prep school, whose long-past literary career has descended into (mostly) maintenance-drinking-level alcoholism and academic mediocrity. He’s still generally liked and has no end of charisma (hey, it’s Clive Owen), but he’s starting to become a problem and an embarrassment. Into this comes Dina Delsanto (Binoche), a painter suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, who has come to the school to teach the art she can no longer create. Naturally, this is a movie, after all, the far-from-outgoing painter takes an immediate dislike to the wisecracking Marcus. Just as naturally, Marcus is intrigued by her quick wit and low tolerance for suffering fools (even if maybe they aren’t fools). It doesn’t take a genius to know where this is going. At the same time, it, at first, takes an unusual path when the two become engaged in an academic battle over whether words (his weapon) or pictures (hers) carry more weight. Yes, the answer’s going to be a lemon, that’s a given, but by the time we get to it, the issue is almost non-existent, having been overtaken by more personal matters.
The importance of the battle lies in the fact that it both energizes the students, some of whom are on both sides, and Marcus and Delsanto. For all the screenplays contrivances — including, but not limited to, Marcus’ estranged son (Christian Scheider), a spot of desperate plagiarism, alcohol problems , it is savvy enough not to paint either the battle, or the inevitable romance as magical solutions. Both provide a certain amount of healing (the embittered Delsanto is easily as damaged as Marcus), but neither are fixes. The portrait of Marcus’ alcoholism is very knowing – even to his use of the term “tired” as code for “too drunk to even pretend sobriety” – and convincing, and it’s great to see Owen back on his game. (Binoche, even with certain missteps, has never been off hers.)
Equally good to see is Fred Schepisi as a still vital filmmaker. This century, only two of Schepisi’s films have previously made it to Asheville, the excellent Last Orders (2002) and the unfortunate It Runs in the Family (2003). Here he brings a beautifully unforced sense of sophistication to the material, beautifully framing his shots, and placing Owen and Binoche in just the right settings. The use of one of her paintings, as if it was a fantasy skyscape behind them is very fine. Schepisi manages to craft a great-looking movie without fussiness and without making things look like they’re taking place in an Architectural Digest photo spread. The end result is an engaging, frequently beautiful, literate, good movie, damaged, but not killed, by some dubious plotting. Definitely worth your time. Rated PG-13 for sexual material including nude sketches, language and some mature thematic material.
Starts Friday at Carolina Cinemas.