** (out of four)
At the Maine private high school where he teaches honors English, Jack (Clive Owen) enjoys forcing his colleagues to play a game. It’s not as macabre as Jigsaw’s demands in “Saw,” though Jack’s nearly as pushy. He says a five-syllable word, and the other person must reply with another five-syllable word beginning with the next letter of the alphabet. A word Jack should start using: “insufferable.” That’s what he is during much of “Words and Pictures,” a low-stakes drama that shoots for intellectual flirting but mostly creates pretentious jibber-jabber.
Jack, a former literary star who calls haiku “early tweets” and relentlessly notes words’ derivations, has become a bitter shadow of himself. He’s an alcoholic because this is a movie about a writer. Creative rejuvenation comes, sort of, in the form of Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche), an honors art teacher struggling with rheumatoid arthritis who at first thinks Jack is a “madman.” He’s heard that she’s been called “the icicle,” and their relationship gets off to the kind of salty start that can only lead to romance. Meanwhile, they enliven their classes through a fierce battle over which are more important, words or pictures.
Inspiring previously indifferent students is a good thing, though each main character makes a total of one interesting statement—Jack denying anyone can become who they used to be and Dina wondering if a person’s work ever represents the best of them. “Dead Poets Society,” which “Words and Pictures” blatantly rips off with a crass student calling Jack “my captain,” showed how to make onscreen poetry sing—and it wasn’t a song of smug obnoxiousness.
Yet director Fred Schepisi (“Fierce Creatures,” “Mr. Baseball”) and writer Gerald Di Pego (“Phenomenon”), also borrowing from “School Ties” and “The Words” and at times approaching the grating “Admission,” address no juicy or profound issues in their debate. The ultimate showdown in the tiresome “Words and Pictures” exclusively includes quotes from legendary writers but no classic works of art. As if we weren’t already dealing with apples and oranges.
If you’re going to depict a war, depict a war—not a casual, hypothetical disagreement between proud, childish instructors that ultimately has no answer and doesn’t matter. We could talk all day about the value of movies vs. music or dance vs. sports. But we don’t need to.
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