(2013) Romance (Roadside Attractions) Clive Owen, Juliette Binoche, Valerie Tian, Navid Negahban, Bruce Davison, Amy Brennerman, Adam DiMarco, Josh Ssettuba, Janet Kidder, Christian Schneider, Keegan Connor Tracy, Andrew McIlroy, Harrison MacDonald, Willem Jacobson, Tanaya Beatty, Tosh Turner, Style Dayne, Mackenzie Caldwell, Eva Allan. Directed by Fred Schepisi
Brevity is the soul of wit. A picture is worth a thousand words.
In a sense, the war between images and verbiage has been going on for quite some time. Writers like myself tend to take the stance that words are the most important aspect of human culture; without words there would be no way to codify our thoughts, to take our greatest concepts and make them real. Artists like my sister tend to believe that pictures are more important; they are expressions of the human soul and can communicate at a glance what it would take pages of words to do. So who’s right?
At a tony New England prep school, that argument is being made flesh. The popular English teacher, Jack Marcus (Owen) whom the students affectionately call Mr. Marc, leads the charge of the word brigade. A well-regarded published author, he can be one of those affectionate curmudgeons, calling his students “droids” and privately despairing of their willingness to pull their heads out of their social media. He’s a scruffy sort but the kids love him.
On the other side is the new art teacher, Dina Delsanto (Binoche), a very respected artist. She’s somewhat prickly and immediately puts up a wall between herself and her students – “I’m not here to be your friend,” she tells her students on the very first day, “and I don’t want to hear about your problems.” But, if they want to know how to paint, how to express themselves through art, they’ve come to the right place. She’s passionate about art in general and eventually, about her students.
But these people are very flawed. Jack has become a raging alcoholic, and hasn’t published anything in years. Some very public drunken spectacles have made the school’s board of regents extremely uncomfortable and there are some who want him gone, including other teachers although the loyal Walt (Davison) sticks by his side. Jack also has a very difficult relationship with his son which leads to a whole lot of self-loathing. Jack even appropriates one of his son’s poems and displays it as his own.
Dina on the other hand has severe rheumatoid arthritis which has prevented her from painting a workable piece of art in years. Her frustration at being denied a means of self-expression has resulted in her building walls around her, pushing people away and being generally disagreeable most of the time. And, of course, she looks at Jack as the enemy.
And, of course too she and Jack will soon develop feelings for each other, this being an American movie. But unexpectedly, the student body begins to become involved in the “war” as sides are drawn and debate is engendered. More importantly, they begin to use their minds for something other than figuring out how to beat a boss in the latest videogame, but the newfound relationship between Jack and Dina threatens to destroy them both. Can they inspire their students and each other to be better?
Veteran Australian Schepisi is given a pretty interesting concept to wrestle with, although writer Gerald Di Pego wastes it in a lot of ways by failing to flesh out most of the characters in the film other than the two leads. I find it a bit ironic that the two teachers in the film were supposed to be inspiring their students, but those students are little more than the walking dead – uncaring, mainly just present in their seats with almost nothing to offer during the film. That’s not the fault of the young actors in those seats; they’re given nothing to work with.
On the other hand when you have actors the caliber of Owen and Binoche, you don’t need much else. Their banter is so natural and genuine you have to imagine they are the best of friends off-set. Both of them pull the audience in not only to their viewpoint but to their characters, and both have their battle scars from life. Some are more obvious, like Jack’s drinking or Dina’s anger but much of their vulnerability comes through their eyes, in glances that they give each other as if to say are you going to let me down too? without saying a word. In that sense, I suppose pictures do say a thousand words.
Like a lot of movies over the past couple of years, Words and Pictures fails to learn from its own battle. The movie runs on too long going over the wrong things over and over again. Yes, we get that Jack is an alcoholic and apt to make a spectacular drunken ass of himself at inopportune moments. Yes, we get that Dina is bitter and has lost her inspiration amid the very real pain she’s suffering. We don’t need more than one or two instances to prove the point. If the movie is going to be that long, I’d have much rather gotten more of a look into what the kids were doing and feeling. Teenagers are people too.
I like the idea of a debate between words and pictures. After all, they’re two of the primary ways that humans use to communicate (music being the other). The filmmakers let the audience pick their own side and while writers like myself are naturally going to gravitate towards Owen’s impassioned speech near the end of the film, there is no shame in feeling more akin to Binoche’s own soliloquy. There is also no shame in finding a middle ground and deciding both carry equal importance.
REASONS TO GO: Interesting debate. Owen and Binoche make the film.
REASONS TO STAY: A bit too long. The kids are inane. A few too many rom-com cliches.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some mature thematic elements, some sketches depicting the nude human form, and some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The paintings used in the film were all painted by Binoche, an accomplished artist for years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dangerous Minds
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10