The roles of Jack Marcus and Dina Delsanto don’t require the heavy lifting of Academy Award-nominated actors. The stock characters at the center of the romantic dramedy “Words and Pictures” are an alcoholic writer and a painter with an artist’s standoffish temperament, respectively. Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche have played similar, better-written roles before (see “Hemingway & Gellhorn” and “The Lovers on the Bridge”), and they could probably sleepwalk their way to a paycheck here.
But to their credit — and to the movie’s great benefit — they don’t. Binoche even created the paintings herself in the film. And the two conjure a charming trifle out of an overlong story that often teeters on trite.
Owen’s Jack has taught at a Northeastern prep school for years by the time Dina takes a job there. He’s a good teacher, but he isn’t big on rules, which is a forgivable offense for a celebrated author. But with alcoholism interfering with his productivity, he finds his job in jeopardy. Dina has troubles, too, though hers aren’t self-inflicted. She is ostensibly taking a sabbatical from her high-profile Manhattan career, but the truth shows in the cane she uses to get around: She can barely hold a brush since her diagnosis of debilitating rheumatoid arthritis.
As soon as the pair meet in the teachers lounge, the chemistry is clear, as Jack tries to engage Dina in a word game that his colleagues have grown weary of. But the sparks aren’t just romantic. The teachers begin to inspire each other creatively, too, especially after Jack manufactures a war between visual art and literary craft that the entire school becomes invested in.
Aspects of “Words and Pictures” feel like they’re from another era, whether it’s the “His Girl Friday”-style repartee or the overly sentimental music that pops up between scenes. Veteran director Fred Schepisi still uses some of the methods he did when helming “Roxanne” (1987) and “I.Q.” (1994), and his take on filmmaking, not to mention romance, doesn’t always feel fresh. Of course, the baby-boomer audience for this movie may not mind the throwback vibe, especially amid summer releases that are comparatively dumbed down.
Besides, none of the movie’s faults can undo the power of Binoche and Owen. Their interactions look so naturalistic that they seem unscripted. And although both characters have hard edges, the actors balance the flaws with charisma and an infectious passion for their respective art forms. Even when Jack commits what many would consider to be the greatest of literary sins, Owen manages to make him sympathetic. And even after Dina basically dares her students, co-workers and even her sister not to like her, her redeeming qualities are never obscured.
The plot may meander into some unnecessary diversions, but the actors remain invested. And if they believe it, pros that they are, why shouldn’t we?
★ ★ ★
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains sexual material including nude sketches, strong language and some mature thematic material. 111 minutes.