Not Worth a Thousand Words
Back in the day as well, romantic comedies were pretty predictable. Tracy or Grant or Stewart and Hepburn, Peck and a different Hepburn, Stewart and Sullavan or Arthur, Gable and Colbert: initial antipathy, witty barbs, sparks flying before inevitable true love blooms. Real reel success derived from scriptwriters and stars, not from suspense about a foregone conclusion. Today repartee is vanished from movies and song lyrics, replaced by obscenities that trained audiences find hilarious.
Fred Schepisi’s Toronto Festival-selected Words and Pictures adheres to the basic recipe, with mild, mixed results. For one thing, it muddies its waters with a limp gesture towards topicality in the introduction of school bullying, and it missteps further in unintentional suggestions about ethnicity and teen sexuality and an unfair misleading assertion about the culprit.
Grant’s C.K. Dexter Haven’s excessive drinking in The Philadelphia Story is not allowed to overwhelm the story, whereas here Gerald Di Pego’s screenplay devotes large chunks to hero Jack Marcus’ (Clive Owen) self-destructive alcoholism though fellow Croyden staff strangely do not remark the reek of vodka that he habitually swills in the Maine prep school parking lot. In a long line of inspired inspiring teachers, of whom youngish filmgoers will probably remember Robin Williams’ John Keating, “Mr. Marc” is a published author to boot though with much malarkey on his résumé and now a long dry spell of writer’s block.
His unorthodox personality and methods amuse his literature students but fail to wean them from obsession with social media, technology, and high grades for admission to Princeton. The story wants him to be a nice guy with problems, but he comes across as irresponsible, obnoxious, pedantic, a boor and a bore. Late for classes and in grading papers, he is up for imminent job-performance review. His irreverence and manic word-maven’s games having alienated some colleagues, he is not above threatening to blackmail board head Elspeth Croyden (Amy Brennerman) with their past affaire and passing off as his own work a poem by his yearning, embarrassed rather than estranged grown son.
Abstract painter Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche, whose real-life paintings are shown in the film) comes aboard as new art teacher. Once up-and-coming like Jack, she has been derailed by another demon, not booze but crippling rheumatic arthritis which has made painting painful to the point of near impossibility. Nicknamed the Icicle and rumored to have once punished a student with the aluminum cane that supplements a knee brace, she is prickly, no-nonsense, demanding of students, and hiding language skills and vulnerability underneath a hard exterior.
Divorced and dogged, Jack is attracted, but their immediate verbal sparring leads to “war,” a contest to be decided at a future assembly between the Words for which he will be the knight and the Pictures which she is to champion. He needs this face-off more than she, to fan interest in the Lion literary magazine which he oversees and which could be a means to tenure.
Along the way are a bedding and drunken admission of betrayal, tears from a socially abused student (Valeria Tian as Emily) and also from a contrite AA father, negativity as well as some support from other faculty members, and competitive mutual admiration society speeches at the public lit-v-art print-v-paint showdown. But it is all mere delaying tactic, comic or serious relief, on the way to life lessons learned, necessary self-love acquired, and the inevitable springtime-blossoms mutual love that follows.
(Released by Roadside Attractions and rated “PG-13” for sexual material including nude sketches, language and some mature thematic material.)