To determine whether Words and Pictures is right for you, please answer the following:
Are you a tortured artist?
Do you enjoy torturing others with your art?
Would you be more successful in romance if the opposite sex would only realize that your witty, acid-laced banter is a tough hide overlaying the soft underbelly of sensitivity, emotional availability and breakfast in bed?
Is it your dream for a student to address you as "my captain?"
If you've answered "yes" to any or all of these, you fit squarely within this film's targeted demographic. If not, take note: With its final frame, a screen-filling haze of washed-out colors blending in fuzzy blotches, Words and Pictures achieves a spot-on expression of its kitschy aesthetic. This is a movie that talks up art appreciation in the service of an obnoxious rom-com that presumes we should be sympathetic toward two preening, self-styled intellectuals and their mating dance of cruelty and pretentious behavior.
Pity that Juliette Binoche has to waste to her talents on this slight, grating material. With each sly curl at the corners of her mouth, she suggests a begrudging appreciation for the boor that is Jack Marcus (Clive Owen, trying but not succeeding at an American accent). Marcus is a prep school teacher of grotesque contradiction, one that filmmakers think makes him "interesting:" he speaks of the sublime power of words, insists on such powerful words from his students, and yet uses language with all the grace of a bull in a china shop. When he’s not browbeating his colleagues in the faculty lounge to play a polysyllabic word game, he’s throwing books at his students and insulting them. Because he's that kind of freewheelin', fuck-the-rules genius. Oh, and he is also a cliché, the alcoholic writer whose muse left him long ago, but who still toils away in front of his computer screen, chugging one vodka gimlet after another, as if inspiration lay at the bottom of the glass.
As Nina DeSantos, Binoche is the more sympathetic character, if only in relief. She, too, is afflicted — her affliction being the physical malady rheumatoid arthritis. DeSantos, like Marcus, is a tough-love kind of teacher, one who pushes her art students to tears only because she wants their best.
The script, try as it does to be cute, frothy and ingratiating, is a misshapen, graceless thing, forcing an unbelievable love story into an awkward, terribly contrived framework, in which Marcus goads DeSantos into taking part in a school-sponsored battle to see which is mightier: the word or the picture. As it dips into this conceit throughout the film, without ever developing the idea to any meaningful, thought-provoking extent, Words and Pictures betrays a facile understanding of the power of art. Which might not be so bad if it weren't going on and on about it. Again and again, Marcus waxes long-winded on a great sentence (one is repeated twice, so his knowledge seems limited), and DeSantos implores her students to express themselves with passion. There’s so much about the marriage of words with pictures that could have better supported the love story that is this film's reason for being. But the movie never brings formats like children’s books, graphic novels, illustrated folio and the like into the equation. Having limited itself with a silly dichotomy, Words and Pictures doesn't do enough with either.