Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Fred Schepisi
Stars: Clive Owen, Juliette Binoche, Bruce Davison, Navid Negahban, Amy Brennerman, Adam Di Marco, Valerie Tian, Christian Scheider, Josh Ssettuba, Janet Kidder.
Australian director Fred Schepisi has carved out a career with films that value substance and character over special effects and big action sequences, films like The Eye Of The Storm, a literate adaptation of Patrick White’s novel; Six Degrees Of Separation, based on John Ruane’s acclaimed play; etc. His latest film is Words And Pictures, based on a script from Gerald DiPego (Phenomenon, Instinct, etc), which offers another take on the familiar odd couple romantic comedy. It’s hard not to avoid the cliches of this overcrowded genre, although Schepisi does his best.
The film centres around the prickly relationship between two teachers at an elite preparatory high school. Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) is a former writer who now teaches Honours English and has a love of words, and he edits the prestigious school magazine that showcases the students’ writing. He inspires his students with his passion for words, even getting then to turn their 140 character tweets into a form of haiku. But the scruffy and acerbic Jack also has a drinking problem that sees his job under threat by the school board.
A new teacher at the school is Dina Delsanto (Oscar winner Juliette Binoche, from The English Patient, etc), a renowned artist who suffers from a severe form of rheumatoid arthritis that has forced her to find new ways to create her works. When the bitter but feisty Dina tells her students that words are a trap and lies, it sparks a rivalry between her and Marcus over which is the more powerful – words or pictures. The pair trade barbed observations about the nature of creativity and ideology. Their rivalry further sparks enthusiasm amongst their students and the debate about words and pictures seems to consume the school body.
Their rivalry also tries to recapture the spirit of those old screwball romantic comedies, but falls short of emulating the classics of the genre which often featured Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn trading witty barbs. Nonetheless, DiPego’s script is at times quite witty and its exploration of the key themes is interesting. However, the film is quite predictable in where it is headed. There are a number of subplots woven throughout the narrative, although some of them are less engaging than others. Marcus’s attempts to reengage and connect with his estranged son Tony (played by Christian Scheider, son of the late Roy Scheider in his debut) is interesting, but that subplot that concentrate on a cocky and egotistical student (Adam DiMarco) who virtually stalks a fellow student (Valerie Tian) is less engaging and actually adds little to the film.
There is great chemistry between Owen and Binoche though as the pair of wounded and emotionally vulnerable protagonists that elevates the formulaic material. The charismatic Owen brings a certain charm to his role as the flawed Marcus. His Marcus is another in a long line of inspiring teachers, and I was reminded a little of Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poet’s Society. There is a long history of inspiring teachers in cinema, from Mr Chipps through to Williams’ Mr Keating, but Marcus is a little too flawed to be listed in the same company.
Something of an artist herself, Binoche does her own painting in the film which lends authenticity to her character, and she has a radiant presence and a twinkle in her eye. But she struggles with the demands of comedy and her delivery sometimes lacks timing.
Rounding out the cast are Amy Brennerman, who is stuck in a thankless role as a former lover of Marcus; Navid Negahban (from the tv series Homeland, etc) as the sympathetic principal; Bruce Davison (from Willard, Six Degrees Of Separation, etc) as a veteran teacher who is one of Marcus’ few allies on the staff.
With films like the delightful Roxanne to his credit, Schepisi is a dab hand at this sort of thing, and he maintains a suitably light touch throughout. Words And Pictures serves as a nice tonic for those who value mature, literate scripts over the empty bombast of shallow blockbusters driven by special effects, pyrotechnics and sound turned all the way up to eleven.
As to the central conceit, in the rivalry between words and pictures which one wins? In the end, DiPego (the writer) and Schepisi (the visualist) play it safe.