Not many actors can time and deliver a wisecrack as deftly as Clive Owen, whose hewn-from-solid-oak looks usually keep him out of comedic territory. “Words and Pictures” pairs him with Juliette Binoche in a squabbling romance about prep-school teachers, and he makes the most of the opportunity. It’s an ancient “I love you but not till the fade-out” yarn, but he makes it compulsively watchable.
The enormously likable film has just about every quality on my checklist for an adult romantic comedy. There are intelligent, independent characters played by good actors. There is a plausible spark between them, clever writing and non-trivial problems to delay the “I love yous” for about 80 minutes.
Binoche is Dina, new to the faculty, a respected artist whose output and passion for life have dwindled as her severe arthritis advanced. Owen is Jack, a published author blocked by boozing.
In a nice bit of parallel imagery, we see Jack start his day by filling a thermos with vodka, while across town Dina makes her way with a literal crutch. Veteran director Fred Schepisi showed his mischievous flair for romantic comedy with Steve Martin’s Cyrano-inspired “Roxanne” a quarter-century ago, and he’s still got the skills. This is a sometimes dark story told lightly.
When the icy Dina arrives in the teachers’ lounge, Jack pounces, eyes devilishly aglitter, needling and teasing her as if she were a withdrawn new student. She returns fire, snark for snark. In class, she warns her students “words are lies,” insisting that images alone communicate truth. He organizes a multimedia debate, his writers against her artists, with the school body as the jury.
The real focus of the film is the acerbic relationship growing between the charismatic main characters, each of whom is at a life crossroads with no plan forward. After a spin cycle of will-they-or-won’t-they, Jack appears, bouquet in hand, at Dina’s door. As she stands poker-faced at the open threshold, he proclaims, “Come in, she said, suddenly smiling a broad, welcoming grin.” Their coming together is funny, it’s pathetic, and it’s believable. As a story about middle-aged romance should, it has a fine balance of laughs and agony.
Owen is masterful at portraying surface charm and submerged darkness. He played the fading Ernest Hemingway in a 2012 HBO bio-drama, and there’s some carryover in Jack, a man of wit and ego feeling his talent ebb. He gets across the irony of both his self-satisfaction and self-loathing.
Binoche, a well-regarded painter as well as an Oscar winner, brings a real sense of connection to the canvas as she creates her own artworks on screen. Her performance, full of charming, fussy bits of business, seems a bit forced, but after such a frolic one feels forgiving.