In the world of romantic comedies, there’s not much that compares with the Katherine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy films, but Words and Pictures, directed by Fred Schepisi (Roxanne and Six Degrees of Separation) takes a crack at going up against the genre and gets an “A” for effort. Like its two main characters, however, the film does have its flaws.
Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) is a smart-mouthed English professor at a prep school, who loves getting under the skin of his colleagues by blasting them with high-brow word games. (The fact that I was a crossword editor in a former life has everything to do with why I loved this aspect of the film!) The once prolific poet, whose job is now in severe jeopardy, has had his creative fires drenched by alcohol. When renowned artist, Dina Delasanto (Juliette Binoche) joins the faculty, his attraction to her, both intellectually and romantically, fuels his competitive spirit. The two soon become embroiled in a battle of wits and art as they involve themselves and their students in a war to determine whether the pen is mightier than the paintbrush.
The snappy repartee and intellectual sparring between the two professors is very entertaining, and when Owen passionately pleads his case by spouting examples of literary greatness against which today’s “banal Tweets and text messages” cannot compare, the movie shines. With all his quirks, Marcus’s raw passion and devotion to his craft are what make him the kind of teacher our children would be privileged to have.
Delasanto is also a teacher who possesses that engagement, but in a colder, less smoldering way. She too has more than a few chips on her shoulder–most of them precipitated by her affliction with rheumatoid arthritis. The film does a good job of showcasing the illness, and the scenes of Binoche adapting her painting methods because of it are fantastic. (During a post-film Q&A with the director, I learned that Binoche amazingly painted all the canvases on her own–and they are beautiful!)
Other subplots involving a student and a stalker and Jack’s relationship with his son are brought into the story, and this is where the film falters. It’s a minor problem, but it does dilute the intensity of the main story, and serves more as a distraction than anything else. As the two professors engage in proverbial fisticuffs, come together, separate and come together again–all while the undercurrent of sexual attraction is prevalent, the film is at its best. Unfortunately, it all ends in a kind of cottony, ambiguous ending, and that for me was a direct affront to the volatility of their personalities.
As much as I felt a tad let down by a culmination that never occurred, I will never fault a film that deals with the romantic travails of a 50-year-old couple. (I saw this film at an AARP Life @ 50+ conference, and it is recommended by them and the organization’s Movies For Grownups program.) Both Owen and Binoche are wonderful–their attraction is believable, they have a kind of ironic rapport that is attractive. If you are a fan of words, art, and love, you can’t go wrong with this film.