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NPR Arts & Life

Love Blooms In Midlife, But Halfheartedly

Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche do their best in the watery <em>Words And Pictures</em>.
Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche do their best in the watery <em>Words And Pictures</em>.

No fewer than three comedies about finding love in midlife open this week, all of them shiny with major stars. Is it time to stop whining about the dearth of romantic comedy for mature audiences? Only if you prefer quantity to quality.

I haven't seen Blended, a Warner Bros. picture featuring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore (talk about milestones, Gertie's turning 40!) as failed blind-daters marooned in a recreation park with their respective kids. Leaving aside the fact that Sandler is a terrible fit with family fare (he was magnificently dark and dangerous in Punch-Drunk Love and Grown Ups 2), any movie that isn't Neighborsbut boasts a song titled "You Suck" has to give prior pause.

The Love Punch, an overbearingly chipper caper from director Joel Hopkins, shoots for vintage screwball and misses for lack of wit. The plot is topical and mostly to be expected: A divorced couple repairs to France to recover lost pensions from horrid corporate fat cats and — following the usual recriminatory flimflam — rediscovers one another against scenic backdrops. Spark renewal ensues obediently after much falling about and some of the lamest banter I've heard since Sex and the City 2. The movie is only worth your time if you like looking at Emma Thompson (who's never looked English-rosier) and Pierce Brosnan (aging enviably as the rangy and craggy invariably do) putting in the best teamwork they can muster. Unfortunately, chemistry-wise, they appear to be playing brother and sister.

To its credit, Words and Pictures gets that there's no need to dispatch skittish lovers to exotic climes in the service of a satisfying midlife romance. In fact, you can pretty much jettison plot, if only because by that stage in life almost everyone is lugging enough emotional baggage to fill a whole archive of verbal swordplay. The action in most middle years is inner life and halting connections, which require a script incisive enough to get at the back and forth and to and fro of two people sidling up to love while backing away from the hurt they see barreling toward them again.

Still, you can have too much chat if the repartee is not up to snuff. The movie, which is set in a moderately posh Connecticut high school, is at least half an hour too long. The windy script, by former teacher Gerald Dipego, feels more like hard-working ping-pong than an escalating, sexy flirtation between two scarred arty types. It doesn't help that, ludicrously, they're facing off over which has more power, literature or fine art.

British actor Clive Owen is miscast as tweedy Eng. Lit. teacher Jack Marcus. His American accent keeps slipping, and he's too much the recessive hunk to play a once-acclaimed poet who never shuts up so as to drown the voices in his boozed-up head, the ones that tell him he's a failure and possibly a cheat.

Where on earth do movies get their teachers from? Jack addresses his students as "droids," inveighs against their use of social media and lack of critical skills, and brooks no alternative to his own fairly middlebrow tastes, which run to Updike and Ian McEwan. In the real world, where fee-hungry schools now cater to rather than instruct their pupils, his disdain would earn him a rap over the knuckles from the Dean. Here the Dean (a refreshingly cast Navid Negahban, who plays a terrorist on Homeland) is displeased because Jack is neglecting the groundbreaking literary mag he founded at the school. He's not too happy about the frequent benders, either.

So far, so familiar. Enter Juliette Binoche, though, and Words and Pictures wakes right up. Binoche has a face made for woe, which has gotten her into a trap playing beautiful, glum women to whom terrible things happen. And a bad thing has happened to Dina DeSanto, an abstract painter whose worsening rheumatoid arthritis has thrust her into teaching art at the school.

There, she enters into a transparently pre-coital war of words with Jack. Ludicrous as it is, Binoche's gusto (her own paintings are featured as Dina's work in progress) and her filthy bark of a laugh more than make up for Jack letting off recurrent steam with a double Scotch.

Words and Pictures is no more than a middling offering from Australian director Fred Schepisi's long and uneven oeuvre, which includes The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, A Cry in the Dark, Six Degrees of Separation and an underappreciated little gem, Last Orders. But it's worth seeing for Binoche's Dina, a woman who hangs onto her principles and her appetite for life even when it shows her careless disrespect. I'm not sure what she sees in Jack, but it's no stretch to guess what he sees in her.

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