“Words and Pictures” may disappoint you not because of what it does or doesn’t do but because of what you bring to it. The film is being sold as a Tracy/Hepburn-style romp starring Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen, and what moviegoer of a certain age and inclination wouldn’t jump to see that? But while the sexy, literate sparks are there, “Words and Pictures” has weightier things on its mind and about three extra genres. Director Fred Schepisi (“Roxanne”) has given us an intensely felt comedy-drama about academia, alcoholism, art, and personal struggles, when a lot of us just want a romantic farce for smart people. Anyway, haven’t these two actors suffered enough in their other movies? Don’t we all deserve a break?
On its own terms, of course — which is what any movie should be judged on — “Words and Pictures” is enjoyable, occasionally grueling, and overstuffed with incident and agenda. The movie takes place at an upscale prep school, the kind with small class sizes and crests on the jackets. Jack Marcus (Owen) — “Mr. Mark” to his teenage acolytes — is a slightly more unhinged variation on Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society,” riffing on the glories of language while ignoring the stated curriculum. A published poet with better days behind him, he fuels his rebellion with a thermos full of vodka.
He’s the kind of teacher kids love, other teachers put up with, and headmasters expect to blow up sooner or later. Dina Delsanto (Binoche), the new art teacher, doesn’t know what to make of him or the polysyllabic word games he insists on playing in the faculty lounge. A chilly, reclusive painter struggling with rheumatoid arthritis, she worships the image and arrives at school with legends about hitting a student with her cane. Turns out it was an administrator; cue applause all around.
The pieces are in place for a brainy tonic of a date movie, and Gerald Dipego’s screenplay promises and delivers banter with a backspin. Upon meeting, the two ask each other what they teach. Dina: “Honors Art.” Jack: “Hence the scarf. Honors English.” Dina: “Hence the ‘hence.’ ” There’s more like that, arch, quotable, and just this side of precious, and it makes you realize how starved we are for the sound of people who think about what they say and then say it a little faster than we do.
“Words and Pictures” has other fish to fry, though — a whole aquarium full. Jack and Dina fight their attraction by waging war on the aesthetic front, with the painter insisting that “words are traps,” the poet defending words as power, and the entire school gearing up for a climactic (and conceptually ridiculous) school contest to decide. Before that happens, the two leads have to contend with their respective artistic blocks, Jack has to commit a literary crime, and student subplots involving a bratty boy (Adam DiMarco) and a sensitive girl (Valerie Tian) have to be halfheartedly pursued and left hanging. I haven’t even mentioned Jack’s damaged relationship with his grown son (Christian Scheider), one more brick on the wheelbarrow of his woe.
Look, these are two excellent actors who work hard to field every pitch the script throws. Good for them. And it’s a nice change to see Owen cast as a mouthy, vulnerable lush instead of the stoic killers he usually plays. Another actress might mine Dina’s plight for sentiment, but Binoche is having none of it; the character’s an artist who’s losing the ability to make art, and it’s not making her a “better person.” A romantic comedy like the one that “Words and Pictures” is pretending to be needs to have real dilemmas and real feelings at stake. Otherwise, it’s just a Katherine Heigl movie.
There’s one scene that makes good both on what we want and what the filmmakers aspire to, a late-night duet at Dina’s home studio that’s acrid and funny and alive with the sense of proud people daring to bend. Then it’s back to the machinations and melodrama, and when the couple’s sympatico gets a reprise at the very end, it feels horribly forced. No, it’s not fair that “Words and Pictures” isn’t the movie we’d like it to be. But if it were better at being the movie it wanted to be, that wouldn’t be an issue.