2.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for sexual candor, profanity and nude sketches
By Derrick Bang
I cannot imagine what people were thinking.
This film is being marketed as a frothy romantic comedy involving a New England prep school English teacher and an art instructor, who encourage their respective students to engage in a friendly rivalry to determine whether words or pictures are the superior form of communication. Meanwhile, of course, the two instructors fall in love.
Don’t believe it. That’s a serious distortion of the truth.
Gerald Di Pego’s original screenplay actually concerns an arrogant, alcoholic English instructor who lays waste to everything and everybody in his orbit, committing an escalating series of reprehensible acts while sliding further and further into uncontrolled drinking. The story is a downer from its opening scenes, with a few more dreary details thrown in as sidebar elements, just in case the central plot isn’t depressing enough.
Evidence suggests, after completion, that saner heads recognized this film as a stinker, since it sought U.S. release for almost a year. The eventual takers — Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions — must have been reluctant suitors, because the online press materials are minimal (only four photos from which to choose, instead of the usual two or three dozen), and most visibly because the film has been dumped quietly during an early summer season dominated by much glitzier popcorn flicks.
Fair enough. I just can’t figure out what prompted stars such as Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche to accept the assignment in the first place. Under no circumstances could Di Pego’s script have seemed reasonable, let alone rational. And although veteran director Fred Schepisi (Roxanne, Last Orders and Empire Falls, among others) gamely coaxes strong performances from his two leads, that can’t change the fact that they’re trying to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.
Owen plays Jack Marcus, a charismatic honors English instructor at Maine’s bucolic Croyden Prep, who has long coasted on the adulation of students who enjoy his playful nature. But these “likable big brother” characteristics, which teens find so enchanting, are viewed as irritating and condescending by almost all of Jack’s colleagues. The lone exception is Croyden’s history instructor, Walt (Bruce Davison), a longtime friend who occasionally indulges Jack’s fondness for intricate word games.
Jack’s most visible problem is an ongoing slide into alcoholism, with lunchtime nips of vodka having blossomed into drunken public displays that have gotten him blackballed at a tony local restaurant. In part, Jack’s drinking results from professional panic; although hired as a noted author and poet, back in the day, he hasn’t been able to write anything for years.
His immediate concern, though, is the late-term indifference of his students, most of whom no longer have any interest in their senior year studies, since they’ve already been accepted into all the best universities. Seeking something with which to inspire them anew, Jack finds a solution with the arrival of renowned abstract artist Dina Delsanto (Binoche), who takes over Croyden’s honors art class.
After Dina makes a crack about images being far more expressive than words — and because these two classes share most of the same students — Jack jumps on this opportunity to “prove,” once and for all, that his passion for spoken and written communication reflects a cultural imperative that dates back to ... well, to the very beginning.
“To cave paintings?” Dina asks, mockingly, but Jack is undeterred.
What Jack doesn’t know, because Dina works hard to conceal it, is that she is succumbing to rheumatoid arthritis: a painful affliction that has made it increasingly difficult for her to even hold a brush, let alone stand or sit for the hours necessary to produce a fresh painting.
So. The details are larded on with a trowel, but we get it: Both these characters are flawed, and both are increasingly unable to produce the work that characterizes them. I suppose we also could accept that both suffer from afflictions beyond their control, although it’s rather insulting to put Dina’s chronic inflammatory disorder on par with Jack’s self-induced addiction to high-proof beverages.
More to the point, it’s absolutely no fun to watch either of these people suffer, particularly because Owen and Binoche are skilled actors, and they really sell their characters’ mounting despair and instability. Jack’s temper tantrums are childish, explosive and frequent; it’s impossible to believe that he wasn’t fired a long time ago by Croyden’s perceptive headmaster (Navid Negahban).
Considerable time also is spent watching Dina stave off the inevitable, desperately using ever-larger brushes, trying to figure out new ways to support the limbs and body that both betray and keep her in constant pain. These sequences are profoundly sad, Binoche’s attractive features contorted in pain, her eyes displaying the exhausted panic that comes from agony-induced sleeplessness.
And yet Dina’s a fighter, and her flirty banter with Jack is as much a means of self-preservation — a reminder to herself, that she’s not giving up — as a desire to put this conceited colleague in his place. Truth be told, though, she enjoys the competition, and this is where Schepisi’s film does deliver what we expect: Owen and Binoche have a lot of fun with their lively duel, and we can’t help enjoying the witty repartee.
Owen puts considerable passion into his often lengthy declamations; he obviously enjoys the richly expressive sentences that Di Pego has put into Jack’s mouth. The words are rich and lyrical, his ongoing defense of language genuinely welcome at a time when today’s younger generation embraces the blunt, coarse, quick-speak of texting. All this evolution, and we’re once again sending telegrams to each other?
Binoche, in turn, makes Dina feisty and flinty: highly intelligent in a slightly different way, and unwilling to yield a point without a fight. Dina gets the choicest bon mots — the best verbal zingers — and Binoche delivers them with panache.
Unfortunately, none of this obscures the fact that Dina needs this particular man like she needs a train wreck. Indeed, he is a train wreck, and it becomes ever harder to forgive Jack’s various transgressions, however much we might enjoy his vibrant speeches.
Ultimately, inevitably, Jack commits a sin that is simply unforgivable ... and yet, because this is a movie — albeit a very clumsy one — a so-called happy ending remains obligatory.
Both instructors are granted a “favorite” among their students. Jack enjoys playful sport with the similarly arrogant Swint (Adam DiMarco), the class cut-up whose antics border on cruelty, particularly his pursuit of the painfully shy and insecure Emily (Valerie Tian) ... who, by an incredible coincidence, is the budding artist Dina believes has the most potential of all the students in her class.
This subplot involving Swint and Emily, though, moves in weird directions and builds to a bewildering and thoroughly unsatisfying climax. And again, I wonder: What the hell was Di Pego thinking?
Amy Brenneman has an underdeveloped and similarly awkward role as Elspeth, a Croyden exec who had the bad judgment to bed Jack, once upon a time. Christian Scheider fares better as Tony, the adult son that Jack constantly disappoints (yep, even more uncomfortable scenes). Josh Ssettuba makes the most of his role as Cole, a compassionate student who, his finer qualities notwithstanding, seems to be seeking something to do in this script.
Davison is marvelous, as always, dominating his scenes via graciousness and calm. He’s long been one of our finest character actors, popping up and enhancing everything he embraces ... and he’s too frequently taken for granted.
But all this talent can’t save a script that was ham-fisted and misanthropic going in: not even during a brief moment when Jack and Dina separately confront the possibility that yet another method of expression might be just as powerful as their respective passions (a clever notion that goes nowhere).
Ironic, then, that this film’s most serious flaws come down to this: It’s the words, stupid!