By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
This is a pretty hip high school. Not only do they employ a once-promising, now-boozy, crushingly charismatic author for an English teacher, they’ve just hired an acclaimed painter — also loaded with charisma — whose career has been derailed by rheumatoid arthritis.
Because of a trumped-up antipathy between these reluctant academics, this private school is about to be witness to a battle between, as the title puts it, “Words and Pictures.”
If the writer can stay sober long enough, he’ll teach the kids about the power of prose, and if the painter can stifle her bitterness, she’ll espouse the primacy of the image. It’s elbow patches vs. stained smock, plus a countdown to the first shag between these two spectacularly good-looking people.
Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche play wordsmith and picture-maker. The casting is a source of both appeal and disappointment in this one-note movie; the roles are large, but the material thin.
Owen’s character, Jack Marcus, is about to get tossed from the faculty for his hungover manners and his declining commitment. Dina Delsanto (Binoche) is soured by her illness and suffering from creative block.
That’s about it for those two, and the idea of the schoolkids choosing sides in the school’s words vs. pictures debate is also sketchily handled. Screenwriter Gerald Di Pego is all about the inspirational message-making, but without any new wrinkles for this well-worn fare.
That the film moves at all is a credit to veteran Aussie director Fred Schepisi’s ability to get a flow going. The arc of his career has been puzzling — traveling from “The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith” to “Six Degrees of Separation,” with a healthy dose of rom-coms along the way — but Schepisi has always been a master at filling the widescreen frame and building momentum.
With a painter as subject (Binoche created her own canvases), Schepisi is able to make the movie look good, and the interiors are always interesting. But all this effort is in service of ideas that just feel so, so tired. Good people like Amy Brenneman and Bruce Davison are visibly shriveled by their stock supporting roles, and the two top-drawer stars can’t make the formula work.
Binoche is unsteady with the Hollywood idiom, despite coming up with a few unpredictable moments. Owen’s corduroy voice sounds awesome even when he’s adopting an American accent, and he seems unusually committed to this role. His occasional flings at flexing his action-movie muscles have been mixed, but cast him as a disenchanted intellectual, and the guy is a knockout.
“Words and Pictures” (two stars)
Clive Owen is a boozy English teacher, Juliette Binoche an art instructor with arthritis; they’ll force their high-school students to decide whether words or pictures are the more powerful. This tired drama wants to be inspirational, but with the exception of Owen’s strong performance it just doesn’t get anything going.
Rating: PG-13, for language, subject matter
Opens: Friday at the Harvard Exit in Seattle.