"We need someone to play a writer, I'm thinking an American writer." "Clive Owen?"
This is how the casting conversation should have occurred when director Fred Schepisi began to approach writer Gerald Di Pego's strange beast of a romantic comedy Words and Pictures.
Clive Owen plays Jack Marcus. This author turned teacher is struggling with more issues than you can poke a stick at. It's alcohol, writer's block, an estranged son, alienation from his colleagues and a potential job loss. Juliette Binoche plays Dina Delsanto. She's a world renowned artist suffering from crippling arthritis that's temperamental to differing treatment attempts. Jack and Delsanto (as Jack calls her) find themselves at a prep school teaching opposing honours classes for english and fine arts. Their instant chemistry causes a spark that ignites some friendly and creatively inspirational competition. They enlist their students to fight for what's more important, words or pictures.
Owen is a frustratingly great talent. The frustration is that depending on the project and usually the scripting and directorial guidance it's either one note nonsense, heavy handed, over simplified emotional renderings of characters (Killer Elite, Derailed, King Arthur) or sublime, mesmerising turns (Children of Men, Inside Man, Closer). There's not really a middle ground and unfortunately Words and Pictures is going to be gathering dust on the low shelves of his career. Firstly, he's got such an identifiable pitch and intonation in his native tongue that it feels like pronunciation crime watching him wrestle with putting on an American accent. Secondly his character has too many major issues that he must overcome in the fleeting screen time that's required to overcome them. Di Pego's script is a romantic comedy more dense than a Tolkien novel and wasn't willing to sacrifice some digressions to make for a tighter picture. Jack's son, despite the significance of their relationship, is incredibly underdone by the brief and perfunctory moments that he's given in the story. Thirty whole seconds are spent with Jack the writer composing (or attempting to compose) something at a keyboard and you get the slightest hints to a former relationship with Amy Brenneman's Elspeth that goes nowhere. Di Pego isn't content with an arc that ends with the character overcoming an obstacle, it's more like slalom; just when you think that he's learned something you're forced to endure him tearing down his life and the scaffolding that's been erected assist with the job.
Binoche does a great job navigating the ups and downs of an artist with burgeoning passion and inspiration and the shackles of her disability. It makes for a great motivational drive and a search for the perfection. Di Pego's writing of Delsanto is more economical and whole than Jack's mixed bag. However, once she's on the Jack relationship roller coaster, there are moments where you're wondering why such a world weary and emotionally clear artist would waste time with a mess like Jack.
Director Fred Schepisi is a versatile filmmaker. You could not look at his phenomenal resume and pigeonhole his genre or method (Evil Angels, Last Orders, The Chant of Jimmie Black-Smith, Six Degrees of Separation). From the outset Schepisi has fun contrasting both characters and wanting to echo their experiences. For Jack, Schepisi uses a much steadier method. Static point-of-view framing of the unfolding actions of his classes, almost as if you're watching the staging of a play. When the focus shits to Delsanto the camera is graceful and delicate. Unlike Evil Angels having on of the greatest living actors attempting (and some would say butchering) an Australian accent (Queen Streep); it seems like Schepisi had far too much faith in Owen to portray an American character and be able to keep the charm.
Words and Pictures is elevated by the poetic turns of phrase used to demonstrate their power and with fine art on display touching those primitive pieces of your brain. Unfortunately the mess of character flaws, motivations, story digressions and scope make for a tiresome slog.
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Fred Schepisi Written by: Gerald Di Pego Starring: Clive Owen, Juliette Binoche, Valerie Tian, Navid Negahban, Bruce Davison, Amy Brenneman, Adam DiMarco, Josh Ssettuba, Janet Kidder
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