In Words and Pictures, two teachers at a Maine private high school square off over the issue of which of their disciplines is the more powerful: literature or visual art. Does this seem like a peculiarly immature and unsophisticated debate among adults, whom we are told have achieved some success in their fields beyond the confines of Croyden prep? It sure does. But we are also shown that English teacher and published author Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) is an alcoholic with writer’s block, and that painter Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche) is suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, which has prevented her from painting for many months. So, their insecure posturing over this false dichotomy may have been intended as evidence of the depths of their frailties.
But it’s still stupid.
First of all, at the meta level, no one thinks for a moment that a film, of all things, is sincerely presenting a choice between words and images, right? So, we know—almost structurally—that this is a contrivance that will end in a stalemate if not an improbably blissful synthesis. But more problematically, these characters are too Hollywood-likable to give any credibility to their “deep” damage. Owen is charming as a passionate, if irreverent and self-sabotaging, teacher, but as an advanced alcoholic he’s silly. He’s not just a high-functioning drunk; he appears to be a Cinderella drunk: Go to bed drunk and—8 AM, poof!—wake up sober. I mean, the guy chugs from a Thermos of vodka on his lunch break in the school parking lot but is disciplined, instead, for being four minutes late and for failing to contribute his own once-well-regarded poetry to the school literary magazine.
If anything, Binoche’s character is even more ridiculous. Dina is in chronic, career-threatening physical pain; she’s known, we’re told, as the “icicle.” She is direct in her criticisms of her students to the point of impoliteness—and is reputed to have struck one with her metal crutch. Yet, an annoying and smug high-school English teacher—who’s just got to reek of vodka—breaks her reserve in something like 10 minutes.
To the extent that these characters have anything in common, it’s their evangelical approach to education. They are, so other characters tell us, dedicated and talented educators. (We are shown this by their respective and clichéd “Dead Poets”/“Dead Painters” Society irascibility.) But the students are written merely as props to the main storyline. Unlike the aforementioned Robin Williams movie, in Words and Pictures, there are no real stakes for these young characters. The story is a conventional, though utterly unbelievable, “opposites attract” love story strung along a forced, pretentious, and culturally name-dropping conceit.
Skirting around spoilers, here (though if you can’t figure this one out, perhaps movies aren’t the thing for you; maybe try board games, or something), I will say that the ending of this movie is so over-the-top preposterous, so astonishingly corny, so unknowingly Will Farrell-esque that I almost, almost thought I’d been had.
Sadly, though, I think Words and Pictures is every bit as overt and unimaginative as its title suggests.