A fairly popular theory generalized around romantic comedies notes that if the leads have good chemistry, then everything turns out alright, regardless of the material.
While some movies fit this bill (You’ve Got Mail comes to mind), this is not the case for Words and Pictures. Despite the best efforts of leads, Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche, their light-hearted chemistry can’t make watching them go through second-rate rom-com material worth the endeavor.
By focusing the plot on a playful battle between a bitter English teacher, Jack Marcus (Owen) and a new art teacher, Dina Delsanto (Binoche) in a prep school within a small community, the film tries to remain engagingly light throughout. But its melodramatic supporting story-lines, and an uneven tone, constantly makes the movie fall flat. It’s at battle with itself making the movie it believes it should be, while also trying to make the movie the audience wants. By trying to please everyone, though, it pleases nobody.
Although, purposely, a mismatched pair, Owen and Binoche bounce off one another well. Their little quips and jabs at each other provide what levity works in the movie. It’s just a shame that the movie can’t focus itself on that throughout the rest of its running time. Which is only 111 minutes, but constantly feels longer, with it always adding unnecessary supporting story lines or ones that don’t really go anywhere. Despite the leads giving it their all, they can’t sell the movie’s dramatics.
The biggest disappointment here is that, with movies focused more on younger audiences, there probably is a fairly good adult dramedy here. Those little moments where the movie works are only more disappointing when it seemingly has to go back to being melodramatic.
In addition to the moments with Delsanto, Jack’s classroom moments display a good balance of heart and wit, without getting too caught up in the emotion of the scene. Well, at least most of the time. It is evident that screenwriter Gerald Di Pego enjoyed writing for this character, even when he is surrounding him with clichés. While Owen did give moments for the character to charm his way into the audience’s heart, the movie is constantly tripping on its feet figuring out what it should do with him.
Di Pego’s screenplay suggests that it comes from a pen guided by an intelligent writer but the script constantly goes back to run-of-the-mill storytelling tricks. Among its most annoying aspects is how on the nose it is about its various subplots—particularly, Jack’s alcoholism. It treats its audience like they never seen an alcoholic’s recovery story, let alone an alcoholic firsthand. For a movie catering towards adults, this spoon-feeding is not only out-of-place, but pretty insulting. Even a little bit of subtlety would have made the difference.
Director Fred Schepisi’s previous film Roxanne, showed that he knew how to make a good, light-hearted romantic comedy with wit and charm. Flashes inside Words and Pictures suggest the same here. Without a clear, focused story guiding it, however, the movie becomes nothing more than your average movie-of-the-week storyline with a solid, charming romantic buried inside its core.
While not awful, Words and Pictures is a familiarly routine movie. Without anything truly special about it, the filmmakers need to make the extra effort to make the little moments shine. However, this rom-com feels like it is constantly lying on its back, lazily relying on the charm of its characters while also subsequently throwing in more subplots to add time to the plot. Any signs of a fun little movie here get lost in the process.
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