Prep school English teacher Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) meets his match in Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche) - an abstract painter, and new teacher on campus - and challenges her to a war between words and pictures...and, in the process, sparks an unlikely romance.
Despite box office indications to the contrary, studios have discovered middle-aged rom coms satisfy a niche market, appealing to a 40-and-over crowd that can no longer relate to (or tolerate) the sculpted physical specimens and empty-headed inanities that fuel the boy-meets-girl yarns of the twentysomething set. Cozy, cute, and laced with just enough substance to stoke the intellect and provoke pangs of personal identification, these "mature" love stories focus on the wisdom that we all hope we've gained over the years and over the course of many rocky encounters with the opposite sex. 'Words and Pictures' is the latest entry in this burgeoning genre, and it's better than most of its saccharine cousins, thanks to a couple of intelligent, if sufficiently troubled and conflicted, characters and perceptive direction by Fred Schepisi, who's built a career on masterfully depicting the human condition in a variety of offbeat circumstances in films like 'Roxanne,' 'Plenty,' 'A Cry in the Dark,' 'Six Degrees of Separation,' and, most recently, 'The Eye of the Storm.'
Whether crafting comedy or drama, Schepisi has a knack for getting to the heart of matters of the heart, and though 'Words and Pictures' is a mere trifle when compared to the films mentioned above, the Australian director firmly focuses his gaze on the foibles that continually trip up his characters, and in so doing, adds levity to a trivial premise. Jack Marcus (Clive Owen), a once promising writer who now teaches English at a posh New England prep school, eats his lunch in his car so he can imbibe copious amounts of vodka from a metal thermos to ease the pain of his squandered potential and lack of literary brilliance, while Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche), the new art teacher, battles the debilitating symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, which have spawned a cynicism and bitterness that isolate her from her colleagues and the world at large. The two spar over the superiority of their respective disciplines - Jack believes the written word reigns supreme; Dina swears art wields a far greater impact. Though some say a picture is worth a thousand words, Jack believes "a dozen truthful words are worth a thousand pictures," while Dina implores her students not to trust the words. "The words are lies," she emphatically states. "The words are traps."
Their vehement difference of opinion eventually spawns a school-wide competition to determine whether words or pictures carry more weight. Along the way, both forms of communication are employed in positive and negative manners, Jack's reckless behavior puts his job at risk, and the two dysfunctional teachers give in to their mutual attraction against their better judgment, as their physical and emotional infirmities threaten to tear each of them apart. Coming to terms with their dashed dreams, current station in life, and myriad personal problems form the drama's crux, with some light comedy thrown in for good measure.
'Words and Pictures' does spark an interesting debate, and some of the impassioned speeches from both characters regarding the merits of their respective positions are highly persuasive. (A discussion on the evolution of language is especially fascinating.) The screenplay by Gerald Dipego ('Phenomenon' and a great novel called Cheevey) initially manages the rom com elements well - the humor springs from the characters and clever touches abound - but as the movie drags on (and, believe me, it does drag), a heaviness takes over, and getting the story back on the romantic track toward the end requires an unfortunate reliance on formulaic conventions. Schepisi also must shoulder some of the blame, indulging his characters (and tossing in an unnecessary subplot) at the expense of his story, which limps along during its sluggish second half. A good 15 minutes could have been trimmed from the film without harming its message or dulling its impact, and our connection to the narrative most likely would have been strengthened.
Owen and Binoche are both marvelous, expressive actors who seamlessly embody their characters, and they excel here, creating a wonderful oil-and-water chemistry that's utterly believable. Binoche especially goes the extra mile, fully embracing Dina's disabilities and her struggles to keep them at bay, alternating between stubborn resolve and heartbreaking vulnerability. As the rumpled, scarily smart, and wry professor whose love of vodka almost sabotages all the relationships in his life, Owen strikes just the right tone, balancing an all-consuming passion for his art and attraction to Dina with an inescapable penchant for self destruction. It's a classic contradiction, but Owen never makes it seem clichéd. Bruce Davison and Amy Brenneman also maximize their small parts, completing a potent ensemble that bolsters the movie when it sputters and stalls.
Like many middle-aged romantic comedies ('At Middleton' chief among them), 'Words and Pictures' never quite fulfills its initial promise. I fell in love with Schepisi's film at the start, but its meandering script and self-indulgent direction ever so slowly alienated my affections, and that's a no-no in the fickle rom com world. 'Words and Pictures' is still more mature and insightful than many similar movies, but without a strong rudder it loses its way, and what could have been a memorable film becomes only slightly better than a run-of-the-mill genre entry. Though plenty of fine words and pictures make up this likeable movie, it just misses making its mark and capturing our hearts.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Words and Pictures' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a slipcase. A leaflet with the code to access the Digital HD Ultraviolet copy is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, previews for 'Gloria,' 'In Secret,' 'Stories We Tell,' 'All Is Lost,' and 'Much Ado About Nothing' precede the full-motion menu with music.
As shiny and vibrant as a freshly minted penny, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer draws us into the intimate story, and no source material imperfections, such as nicks, marks, and scratches, conspire to distract us from the action on screen. Excellent contrast and clarity produce a well-balanced image, and not a stitch of grain is present. Colors are bold and nicely saturated, with verdant greens and fiery reds punching up the picture, and fleshtones, from Owen's olive ruddiness to Binoche's creamy complexion, remain stable throughout. A fine sense of depth widens perspective and makes background elements easy to discern, and close-ups spotlight Owen's omnipresent scruff and Binoche's careworn visage well. No crush, noise, or other anomalies creep into the frame, and no digital enhancements seem to have been applied. All in all, this is a slick, smooth effort from Lionsgate, that nicely honors this heartfelt romance.
Intimate love stories set within the confines of a high school usually don't brandish a lot of aural fireworks, but the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track provides a seamless soundscape that's warm, full, and unobtrusive. Surround effects are quite limited and mostly confined to bits of scoring, but some noticeable stereo separation up front helps open up the drama. Subtle atmospherics provide essential nuance, and fine fidelity and tonal depth help Paul Grabowsky's music fill the room. Dialogue, of course, is the film's star, and all heated exchanges, playful repartee, and rueful confessions are clear and easy to comprehend. From a sonic standpoint, there's nothing much to write home about here, but no slip-ups downgrade this solid track.
Only a couple of supplements are included on the disc.
Audio Commentary - Director Fred Schepisi sits down for an insightful but rather tedious commentary that's a bit difficult to slog through. Schepisi's low-key approach doesn't match his enthusiasm for 'Words and Pictures,' but if one can get past his monotonic delivery, nuggets of wisdom abound. Schepisi talks at length about his shooting philosophy, and how lighting, sound, editing, and music all play a vital role in how a movie is conceived and executed. He explains shot compositions, praises his production designer, marvels at the chemistry between Owen and Binoche, recalls the jovial on-set atmosphere, and notes how the casting of small parts can either make or break a film. As a director's tutorial, this discussion has merit, but if you're looking for behind-the-scenes anecdotes and background information on the production, you'll be disappointed.
Featurette: "Behind the Scenes of 'Words and Pictures'" (HD, 18 minutes) - Like the film itself, this featurette runs a bit long, but it covers all the bases as it delves into various aspects of the production. The cast and crew analyze the story and characters, gush over the sparks between Owen and Binoche, and praise the talents of Schepisi. Most interesting of all, we learn Owen was the driving force behind getting the picture made, and all of Dina's artwork in the film was actually painted by Binoche. As behind-the-scenes chronicles go, this one isn't anything special, but fans of the movie will find some of the perspective interesting.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 3 minutes) - The film's original preview completes the extras package.
Interesting characters and a clever premise initially propel 'Words and Pictures,' but unfortunately, neither can sustain this romantic trifle that goes on far longer than it needs to. The tale of two troubled teachers who passionately pursue their respective disciplines and engage in a playful competition to determine whether words or pictures possess more merit - and establish an unlikely connection in the process - starts out well, but loses steam along the way, despite winning performances from Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche. Solid video and audio transfers help the film along, but the leisurely pacing dilutes the story's impact. As middle-aged romances go, this one possesses more merit (and intelligence) than most, and is certainly worth a look for those who revere art and literature, and enjoy cozy flicks with warmth and heart.