Thursday, May 22, 2014

Love and learning, Binoche and Owen light up Fred Schepisi's diverting WORDS AND PICTURES

How bracing, not to mention entertaining, it is to hear smart dialog served up by classy actors on a subject -- education -- that gets too little worthwhile attention. (The fight here in the USA between public education and charter schools is mostly a distraction from what is going on: the breakdown of our educational system as part of the ever-widening breakdown of our entire democratic system of government, sacrificed at the altar of corporate welfare, Wall Street, the banking system and the ever-wealthier one per cent.)

Don't worry, you folk who would prefer not to face up to our current times: WORDS AND PICTURES, the new film from one our long-time favorite Australian directors, Fred Schepisi (shown at right), isn't remotely political. Yet the fact that it more than touches on what comprises a good teacher/educator also makes for a movie that can't help but get you to thinking a bit. The screenwriter, who has done an expert job in the teaching realm, if a bit less so in the plotting and execution of the romance-and-the-obstacles-to-this department, is none other

than Gerald Di Pego (at left), whose resume indicates a lot of TV writing and some movies (Message in a Bottle, Instinct, Phenomenon, Angel Eyes) that might seem more feel-good fantasy than rigorous reality-based. That Di Pego manages to address his subject with a mind and hand that encompasses not only what it means to teach well but also the needs and concerns of administrators and fund-raisers (this is a private school, by the way) makes for relatively intelligent viewing. And the budding love story between our two leads -- Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen, who make the best adult lovers (sassy, smart, and very lived-in) -- we've seen in some time, just adds to the fun.

Owens (above) plays Jack Marcus, a once successful writer now teaching for a living with an alcohol problem growing bad enough to threaten his job. Binoche (below) has the role of Dina Delsanto, a famous artist felled by rheumatoid arthritis, struggling to keep the disease in check via the right medication cocktail that her doctor has not quite yet.

The two of them -- both are feisty, mouthy and give as good as they get -- make terrific antagonists whom you just know will eventually be protagonists, and both actors could hardly be better in the roles.

The centerpiece of the movie is the disagreement that arises between the two and their respective areas -- he teaches English, she teaches art -- and leads to a competition in which the students try to prove which is more important. While this is interesting and leads to some more intelligent dialog, most adult viewers will immediately realize that "words and pictures" work best in combination rather than competition.

The plot machinations -- which include everything from bullying via the Internet to Marcus' son (who is understandably alienated from his dad), plus that aforementioned alcohol problem and even a bit of plagiarism -- give our poor Mr.Marcus (and the movie itself) so much to work out but too little time in which to do it believably.

Yet by the point at which resolution must begin, the movie has built up such a wealth of good will, thanks to the fine performances and often very smart dialog, that you might just be able to overlook its weakness toward the finish. The supporting cast includes the likes of Bruce Davison (above, right) and Amy Brenneman (below, left), as well as a number of good actors in the student roles.

Schepisi, as usual, casts impeccably and draws fine performances from all. Look back on the 18 films in his 40-year career -- his best include Six Degrees of Separation and Last Orders -- and it's hard to find a poor or even so-so performance from anyone in any of them.

Yes, Words and Pictures is good enough that you'll wish it were better, but given the nearly ever-present lack of intelligent adult rom-coms, the movie's worth a visit. From Roadside Attractions and running 111 minutes -- the film opens tomorrow, Friday, May 23, in New York City at The Paris Theater and the Village VII, and in Los Angeles at The Landmark and Laemmle's Playhouse 7 and Town Center 5.

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