Critic's Grade: C

Buzzed about as a different kind of summer movie, Words and Pictures holds the right ingredients but lacks real flavor. It tries to revive the timeless debate of the pen versus the paintbrush, with an English teacher and art instructor at a Maine prep school going to war, but the unimaginative screenplay undermines the clever concept, and the plot is buried by its protagonists' artistic crises and forced romance.

Clive Owen plays the disgruntled English teacher, Jack Marcus. Sipping vodka from a thermos during lunch, "Mr. Mark" is a functioning alcoholic whose "fire has gone out," in his own words. He's an Updike-quoting, one-hit wonder of the literary world, popular among the students but scruffy with the stress of long-term writer's block.

Opposite Jack is the lively new arts teacher, Ms. Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche), who sticks out her tongue at everything with usual Binoche charm, smirking through worsening rheumatoid arthritis. An established painter from New York, she now shuffles around with a cane, too proud to ever take the school's elevator. Director Fred Schepisi takes his time with Dina's struggle, using a dozen piano-backed montages to show her attempts to maintain her craft while out of her element, constantly modifying her technique with different brushes and tools to save her weak joints.

Ignited by their egos and bored with the school's army of texting droids, the two teachers begin a series of exhibitions to prove their own craft's superiority. In one display from the English class, there's a picture of girl in a sparkly dress blowing a kiss. Below the picture is a caption spelling out the damaging culture of beauty among American youth. In response, the art students play a looped video of news anchors, their words blending together into a meaningless mess. The video of one journalist is paired with an image of a starving child standing in a war-torn street. The competition offers a few thoughtful presentations, but most of the artillery is a barrage of trite literary quotations. We hear Shakespeare, Twain, Whitman—but no refreshing turns of phrase from the screenplay itself, written by Gerald di Pego.  

Di Pego's banal writing can only go so far, even with the talented Owen and Binoche. "Doesn't anybody want to change the world?" cries Binoche to her students, just one of many cliches. When first faced with Jack's declaration that words are more powerful than images, she actually replies, without a hint of sarcasm or irony, "A picture is worth a 1000 words." She is as stereotypical an art teacher as they come, grabbing her students by the shoulders and shaking them to tears, begging for real emotion and higher standards of self-expression.

It's a shame Words and Pictures lacks the comedy and chemistry of Schepisi's '80s classic Roxanne. Such shallow, one-dimensional characters don't make for much more than insincere masks, and the film turns these two Academy Award-nominated actors into teens pretending to be drunk at their first party, enthusiastically trying to play themselves off as crazy artists.