Sometimes when it comes to terrible, awful, no good, very bad movies it makes more sense to start at the end to talk about their failure. The dreadful and dead-on-arrival romantic comedy Words and Pictures is one such case where the film’s ultimate lack of care becomes evident in a single shot contained in the s closing minutes. It’s not even something that could really be constituted as a spoiler. It’s a shot where the two leads of the film are laughing over a horrible private joke that the audience wishes it was never let in on in the first place. Then they pause. Then, like a hackneyed sitcom, both leads throw their heads so far back it could induce whiplash and start laughing again. It’s a moment of forced idiocy that just underlines how the audience has been had for the previous punishing 110 minutes.
That moment of possible self-knowing and trolling mockery comes courtesy of two very credible actors: Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche. It’s so forced and the film that comes before it so belaboured, aimless, and clichéd that it takes on either a level of open contempt for the material or the kind of proof of life message kidnappers send to horrified loved ones. Saying that Owen and Binoche deserve better than Australian director Fred Schepisi’s claptrap is an understatement. People shouldn’t be buying tickets to Words and Pictures. They should just be sending cheques for $14 directly to the stars themselves.
Owen stars as Jack Marcus, an alcoholic mess and a former high profile poet who has grown stagnant and resentful towards his job and his colleagues at a prestigious and private collegiate academy in small town Maine. He’s not a particularly likable guy. He drinks on the job. His son can’t stand him. He’s on the verge of getting fired. The school literary magazine he helped to champion is about to get the axe. If it’s an item on the “hitting rock bottom checklist,” Owen has pretty much everything except for an unseen illness that’s slowly killing him from within (unless we count the alcoholism, then check that, too).
The deadly disease bit is handled by Binoche playing Dina Delsanto, a former hotshot artist suffering from Rheumatoid Arthritis that robs her from creating and forces her into teaching Honours Art to a bunch of snot nosed blue bloods and people angling to go to Princeton or Oxford that could care less about craft. She’s so likable and warm that all she does is explain to everyone how their art is terrible (except for one girl, whose art is okay, sometimes) and the greatest legend about her is that she caned a student (but apparently a teacher because assault is cool as long as it’s to an older person).
Marcus, who has no friends left at the school except for a kindly fellow teacher played by a squandered Bruce Davison, is immediately taken by Delsanto and since he’s a tortured single dude, he starts flirting with her in the most antagonistic and douchy way possible. He starts a “war” between his beloved “words” and her beloved “pictures” to tell which holds more truth. The film is so dimwittedly written and poorly styled, however, that the ultimate victims are anyone who has an affinity for either words or pictures. It almost makes one want to swear off sight and literacy if these are the people tasked with defending it.
Jack and Dina are loathsome characters carrying out loathsome, almost hateful acts in the cutest possible ways. Neither is redeemable, which might be the point, and the film certainly doesn’t shy away from their tortured pasts, hammering home every few minutes with an awkward musical sting or a painfully obvious bit of exposition that there are reasons for their hatefulness. The screenplay from Gerald Di Pego (Phenomenon, Message in a Bottle, Angel Eyes) certainly never met a tired trope that it didn’t immediately love, but it somehow thinks that by making two bullies and jerks that are incapable of disappearing up their own asses deliver them that it has lucked into something brilliant.
It’s the kind of film where everyone seems to know something is wrong like being in a restaurant where there’s obviously a massive fire in the kitchen but the servers and hostesses are doing their best to keep the people seated entertained and happy while they wait for anything to happen. It’s especially a shame because Schepisi isn’t a bad director despite being this an obvious career worst. This is the same man who directed Steve Martin in Roxanne, an atypical retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac that this film wants to take a few of its edgier cues from, and Will Smith in Six Degrees of Separation, a film that this one wants to take some of its more refined points about wealth and class from. None of his past success can carry over here and the film has such a small degree of authorship that the credits might as well have listed the committee that came up with the film instead of Schepisi.
Owen and Binoche are more helpless than they’ve ever been. Owen can’t play a drunk convincingly on the almost cartoonish level that his erudite asshole of a scribe has been pitched at. Binoche has little desire to play up her character’s physical pains, and even less to play her character as a completely cold hearted bitch. They have chemistry only in so much as they seem to be looking to each other for help to make their ludicrously sleazy flirtation resonate. The rest of the time it looks like they just gave up. Watching them trying to get through a subplot where Jack’s jerk of a teacher’s pet (Adam DiMarco) is obviously sexually harassing and stalking Nina’s “favourite” student (Valerie Tian) is the nadir of the careers of everyone involved: two actors trying to sell a subplot that lengthens an almost ungodly long film that’s sexist, ugly, and ultimately does nothing to forward anything.
Words and Pictures is a slight, but thoroughly annoying film and considering how many terrible films I’ve had to watch already this year, I don’t want to dwell on it any further. It’s like berating a belly up goldfish for not swimming harder when it had the chance. Instead, I will leave by saying that Bruce Davison is a worldwide treasure. His character has such little to do and almost no bearing at all in the story (except to throw out all of Jack’s booze in a five second bit designed to show that character’s “desire to get clean” that goes almost nowhere), but he can brighten up even the most dire of the films simply by similing. I kept praying for him to come back. I bet Owen and Binoche did, too, since they seem to have the most fun hanging around him. He’s wonderful. Useless, but wonderful.
I also think it should be noted that Binoche did all of the paintings in the film herself. They’re pretty good. The paintings just belong in a gallery or a better film far away from this one.