Words and Pictures

Wit, charm, and intelligence are not in abundance onscreen, so when a modest romantic comedy (with serious undertones) comes along that boasts all three of those qualities, it’s worth embracing—especially with Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche in the leading roles. Words and Pictures hasn’t earned stellar reviews in its initial engagements but I found it refreshing and enjoyable.

Owen plays a prep school English teacher who’s lost his fire; he still relishes the language but is worn down by the dullards in his class. He seeks refuge in the bottle, which does no one any good. Enter a new art teacher (Binoche), a well-regarded painter who is suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. She’s spiky but, like Owen, cares deeply about her chosen field. The two new teaching colleagues enjoy verbal sparring and wind up fueling a schoolwide debate about which is more powerful, the image or the word.

Each character is dealing with pain, and each one responds in a different way: screenwriter Gerald DiPego brings them together slowly and credibly, putting reasonable stumbling blocks in their path.
A film of this kind leans heavily on the appeal of its stars (which in this case is considerable) and the touch of its director, Fred Schepisi, who maintains a light hand throughout. We emerge with a good sense of the school where most of the action takes place, as well as the faculty, students, and community as well as our protagonists.

Owen makes a believable English teacher who is passionate about words and the beauty of language. Binoche is equally good as a painter dealing with a disability that threatens to curtail her work altogether. As it happens, all the artwork in the film is actually hers, and some of the film’s most striking moments show her using a variety of techniques to create her canvases.
Against the bombast of early-summer blockbusters, Words and Pictures easily stands out: a satisfying romantic story for and about adults.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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June 2024