Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Movie Review: Words and Pictures

Words & Pictures
Directed by: Fred Schepisi.
Written by: Gerald Di Pego.
Starring: Clive Owen (Jack Marcus), Juliette Binoche (Dina Delsanto), Valerie Tian (Emily), Navid Negahban (Rashid), Bruce Davison (Walt), Amy Brenneman (Elspeth), Adam DiMarco (Swint), Josh Ssettuba (Cole Patterson), Janet Kidder (Sabine), Christian Scheider (Tony), Keegan Connor Tracy (Ellen), Andrew McIlroy (Roy Loden), Harrison MacDonald (Shaftner), Willem Jacobson (Stanhope), Tanaya Beatty (Tammy).

It’s impossible to deny that much of Words & Pictures is incredibly silly. It’s a romantic comedy in which the central romance never comes close to being believable – and whose supposedly uplifting final scene is nearly laughable in its phoniness. The central debate in the movie – about what’s more valuable, words or pictures, is also silly – as if anyone can really make an argument about it, or should be forced to choose between them. To the movies credit, it seems to know both of these things – and at times feels like it’s simply going through the motions – checking off what’s expected of a movie like this in order to get to the stuff the movie is really interested in. That doesn’t make the movie work – it’s too deeply flawed for that to be true – but it kept me interested, and got me thinking throughout the movie – and after it ended.

The film stars Clive Owen as Jack Marcus – a once rising literary star, an award winning poet, who took a teaching job at an upscale, private high school. He`s a good teacher – but as a man he is a mess. Divorced and an alcoholic, with a grown son who he embarrasses, he hasn’t written anything in years, and despite how good a teacher he can be, he’s become a liability and an embarrassment to the small town school. They want to fire him, but give him a final chance to redeem himself. A new art teacher, Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche) has just started. She is a world renowned artist, who has moved to this small town to be closer to her family – because she is stricken with rheumatoid arthritis – and can no longer paint the way she wants to. Marcus immediately eyes her, and starts a `war` with her about the value of words vs. pictures – and draws the students into the debate. Soon the whole school is involved – and although Marcus and Delsanto seem to hate each other, we know that sooner or later, they will fall in love – or something close to it.

At times, I couldn’t help but wonder if Words & Pictures is trying to satirize the typical romantic comedy. Owen and Binoche are both great in their roles, which seem like typical mismatched romantic comedy couple, but as the film goes along it becomes clear they aren’t quite that. Owen plays a character who we expect will eventually redeem himself – and get over his demons. But that doesn’t quite play out like we expect. Owen doesn’t worry about making Marcus into a sympathetic character – he’s really kind of an asshole and not a lovable movie asshole either. Binoche's Delsanto is similar in some ways – a smart, talented beautiful woman, but also somewhat of a cold one. In a typical romantic comedy, the cold woman finds love and learns to come out of her shell. But in Binoche's hands, Delsanto seems to not too interested in that either.

But the movie isn’t really smart enough to satirize the romantic comedy. Perhaps not everyone – like director Fred Schelpsi or screenwriter Gerald Di Pego – aren’t in on what Owen and Binoche seem to be attempting. The whole film has a weird disconnect to it. It’s a strange film, and one I have trouble wrapping my head around.

There are parts of the film that work wonderfully, and parts that are so phony they are almost laughable. The central concept is ridiculous, but the movie seems to know this – as if like Marcus and Delsanto, the filmmakers are simply toying with the audience, like they toy with the students, to get them to think of things in a different light, and take questions seriously, even though they know the debate is silly. I really don’t know what to make of Words & Pictures. It’s a different, more interesting film than I was expecting, even if the whole is way less than the sum of its parts.

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