For a few years now, Quentin Tarantino has been throwing the phrase “geriatric movies” into interviews, particularly to describe the later work of Martin Scorsese. That’s a puzzling choice, given Scorsese’s recent output, and it raises the question of whether Tarantino has ever seen any truly geriatric fare, like Words And Pictures. It’s not necessarily age that makes it geriatric. Stars Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche are firmly into middle age but remain vital, attractive presences. Director Fred Schepisi and writer and Gerald Di Pego are both in their early 70s, but so what? Sidney Lumet made Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, one of his toughest films, in his 80s. Geriatric is more a matter of attitude than of numbers, a fear of daring and a retreat into comforting familiarity.
That attitude is all over Words And Pictures, an MCL Cafeteria meal of a romance set in an exclusive prep school. There, boozy, caustic English teacher Jack Marcus (Owen) struggles with writer’s block and creeping ennui. He once inspired the kids, but now he can barely mask his contempt for them, calling them “droids” and at one point singling out their Twitter use as a particularly noxious youthful habit. But he’s shaken from his downward spiral by the arrival of Dina Delsanto (Binoche), an acclaimed painter and new art teacher with problems, and a bad attitude, of her own. Where Jack’s alcoholism has gotten in the way of his writing, Dina’s rheumatoid arthritis has started to affect her painting.
Forced to walk with a cane, Dina wields it like a weapon to keep the world at a distance. But it isn’t strong enough to protect her from Jack’s persistent, combative flirtations. That’s a shame, since even the skilled, always-welcome Binoche and Owen can’t do anything with a one-liner-filled script that’s far less clever than it imagines itself to be, and that just gets worse as their inevitable romance intensifies. “I can’t tell you how much I want us to put our mouths together,” Jack tells Dina in one scene. If there’s a way to make that line sing, Owen can’t find it.
Then there’s the central conceit that gives the film its title, an ongoing debate that pits Dina’s art against Jack’s, with one championing the superiority of words (his choice) and the other the superiority of pictures (hers). That debate improbably ends up capturing the imagination of the entire school, and it’s as contrived as it sounds, filled with vague, rapturous paeans to the power of prose and poetry and the inspiring qualities of fine art, as if the two hadn’t enjoyed complementary relationships for millennia. A better film might have boxed its way out of that setup, but Words And Pictures never finds a way. Schepisi does nothing inventive visually, and the stars can’t find the humanity beneath Di Pego’s dialogue, generate much romantic chemistry, or make their personal struggles feel like burdens instead of scripted complications they’re destined to overcome before the credits roll. Inevitably, they end up falling in love. Too bad every other moment of Words And Pictures feels just as inevitable.