Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche aren't the first two actors you'd expect to see in a romantic comedy. He's a hunk, of course, but one cast mostly in brooding dramas like "Closer" and "The Children of Men." She's a beauty, but her French accent and dark eyes seem to suggest period tragedy ("The English Patient") rather than modern-day court-and-spark. In "Words and Pictures," the actors are decidedly mismatched -- not to each other, but to the material.
Owen plays Jack Marcus, a promising author and proven alcoholic barely hanging onto his teaching job at a leafy prep school. Binoche is his new colleague, Dina Delsanto, an acclaimed artist thwarted by rheumatoid arthritis. He's the prickly egotist whose brilliance makes him bearable; she's the dried-up flower who just might reblossom. A casual remark from Delsanto -- "Words are lies" -- sets off an ideological war between the two, who seem destined to argue their way into bed.
The problem here isn't Owen, who makes Jack endearing even when his behavior becomes unforgivable. Nor is it Binoche, who convincingly plays Delsanto as a ferocious artist frustrated by her failing hands. (One reason it's so compelling to watch her paint with improvised tools like mops and rolling chairs is that she's really doing it. Those are Binoche's works, and they feel personal in a way that most movie-art never does.) The problem isn't even the lackluster direction by Fred Schepisi ("Six Degrees of Separation").
What sinks "Words and Pictures" is Gerald Di Pego's unsteady script, which tries to marry a Hepburn-Tracy romance to "Dead Poets Society." The students are meant to strike us as promising young talents, but they come off as shallow ciphers or, worse, privileged slimeballs. Owen and Binoche make an appealing pair of rumpled misfits, but they're constantly sharing space with contrived subplots and forced speeches. In "Words and Pictures," the blame goes mostly to the words.
PLOT An English teacher and an art teacher clash over ideologies while falling in love.
RATING PG-13 (language, sexual themes)
CAST Clive Owen, Juliette Binoche
BOTTOM LINE Two heavyweight actors step into a light romantic comedy, only to find themselves sinking into a second-rate "Dead Poets Society."