The prep-school drama “Words and Pictures” is one of those films that you want to like rather more than you actually do. For starters, how pleasant is it to see a film in which people talk about ideas — about art, about literature, about being inspired by words and brush strokes? And isn’t it a treat to see Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche, both looking quite ravishing (despite him being stuffed into the requisite academic corduroy blazer) as a pair of passionate teachers whose erudite yet irritable banter doesn’t conceal a growing attraction to each other?

Yes and yes, absolutely — but “Words and Pictures” is never as much fun as it should be, perhaps because its central idea doesn’t make much sense. There’s a war brewing, at the idyllic school at which Jack (Owen) and Dina (Binoche) teach literature and art respectively — on the topic of whether words or pictures are “better.” It’s not a winnable war, nor does it seem worth the fighting; rather, it’s used as long, literate foreplay between Jack and Dina, both of whom seem a little too smart to be engaging in this sort of either-or battle. (And it’s an odd fight for a movie to take on — an art form that dwells in pictures. Indeed, director Fred Schepisi adds photographs to the beautiful quotations Jack cites, not letting the words stand alone.)

Though “Words and Pictures” seems to want to be a fast-talking romantic comedy, it’s actually far from it; the movie keeps sinking into the murk of Jack’s drinking problem, Dina’s despair over severe arthritis, and a harassment issue involving a student. Every now and then, though, Owen and Binoche look at each other and you see a little electric spark, a crackle, a moment in which you wish these two could just happily banter together forever — a hint of the movie this might have been.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

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