“Words and Pictures”: Love comes to the teachers’ lounge

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“Words and Pictures” opens Friday at Point and Star Cinemas. PG-13, 1:51, three stars out of four.

The danger of trying to make a smart movie is that when you do something truly dumb, it really sticks out like a sore thumb. Fred Schepisi’s comedy-drama “Words and Pictures” has a couple of truly dumb moments, the worst being when the screenplay has Clive Owen say the name of the movie. That’s corny enough, but he says it with a shameless “See what I did there?” grin. Oh, Clive. But aside from that (and a closing shared laugh that looks like the final freeze-frame of an episode of “T.J. Hooker”), “Words and Pictures” is pretty smart, and certainly charming, featuring a snappy, literate screenplay by Gerard DiPego and a deft pair of performances from Owen and Juliette Binoche. Neither actor has been particularly afraid of being unlikable on screen, and it’s their willingness to get a little scuffed up that makes their characters interesting, and redeemable.

Owen’s Jack Marcus certainly has a lot to redeem; he’s a burned-out English professor at Croydon Prep School, a former literary star who has descended into an alcoholic crankiness. But he gets a fire lit underneath him, intellectually and romantically, by a new art professor, Dina DeSanto (Binoche), and the two spar almost instantly in the teachers’ lounge. DiPego gives them great dialogue to zing back and forth, and you can see the pleasure in both Owen’s and Binoche’s faces in both having such good lines to deliver, and such a good partner to bounce them off of.

The pair escalate a nonsensical debate over which is the superior mode of expression, words or images. The irony is that neither can produce much of either; Jack has a serious case of writer’s block, which the vodka isn’t helping, while Dina is dealing with arthritis that makes it painful for her to pick up a paintbrush. (This is especially too bad, because her paintings are stunning — all the work of Binoche herself.)

It’s all building towards an end-of-year assembly that will pit a new essay by Jack against a new painting by Dina, but of course they’ve really just hijacked the school curriculum to engage in a macro game of courtship. But the romantic-comedy thread of the film is actually backgrounded, and DiPego and Schepisi put the focus on mutual respect between the two, and artistic appreciation. Any schoolroom screenplay can quote Shakespeare — that “Words and Pictures” quotes from John Updike and Jeanette Winterson shows some thought.

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Owen and Binoche have such good chemistry — the often dour Owen seems to be especially having a good time here — that you forgive the occasional misstep, such as having Jack’s alcoholism serve as a convenient plot point rather than a character trait. A subplot involving one student sexually harassing another initially seems like a distraction, but the film is smart about it, showing how the harasser uses goofy charm to hide his cruelty from his teachers.

Schepisi, whose long career goes back to Steve Martin’s “Roxanne,” another film about characters too smart not to fall for each other, does have some lovely images here and there. But the appeal of “Words and Pictures” comes primarily from DiPego’s screenplay, and the way Owen and Binoche make it their own. In this battle of words vs. pictures, words wins in a landslide.

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