Words and Pictures gets didactic

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Starring Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche. Rated PG.

If you’ve been staying awake nights trying to choose between language and images as the most essential tool for human communication, Words and Pictures is just for you.

Apparently, there are no pianos or band instruments at the fictional New England private school where this takes place (meaning, of course, that it was shot in Vancouver). And judging from the film’s cutesy-poo soundtrack, music isn’t an art form worth fighting about, anyway.

The coed students here are attentive, well-scrubbed, and barely differentiated updates on those kids in Dead Poets Society. But the pulse in question is that of the filmmakers, with Aussie veteran Fred Schepisi (Roxanne, The Devil’s Playground) directing blandly from a repetitive script by Gerard Di Pego, who penned such middlebrow masterworks as Message in a Bottle and The Forgotten. Their well-intentioned conceit is a battle between supposedly oppositional forces, represented by Juliette Binoche as a man-wary art teacher and Clive Owen as a passionately self-destructive English instructor.

This interdisciplinary conflict might be okay just to get a small-town character study moving. But whenever Owen’s hard-drinking Jack Marcus and Binoche’s arthritic painter Dina threaten to develop their own personalities, with subplots that go nowhere and don’t add much psychological shading, the movie turns them back into mouthpieces for an inherently boring dialectic. France’s fiercely physical Binoche, who does her own real-time painting, convincingly embodies someone fighting the dying of her creative light. But the England-born Owen struggles with his generic U.S. accent, and is thus deprived of oratorical colour the bullying screenplay requires.

Worse than the film’s contrived didacticism is its fusty familiarity. If the macho-alcoholic writer struggling with failure feels a lot like novelist Richard Russo’s characters—think The Wonder Boys—you can follow a trail of vodka-soaked ice cubes back to 2005’s Empire Falls, Schepisi’s HBO miniseries, which found Russo adapting from his own massive tome. (It also featured Paul Newman in his last major role.)

Anyway, the director must remember that almost all movies combine words and pictures. But they don’t usually brag about it.

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