The line between “cute” and “cutesy” is violated, repeatedly, in the sometimes funny, often cloying comedy “The English Teacher.” We’re treated to the rare talents of Julianne Moore in a gently predictable “dark” comedy sprinkled with the most adorably heavy handed flourishes.
Start with the narration (by the oh-so-British Fiona Shaw). We’re told that Linda Sinclair is an unmarried 45 year-old small-town Pennsylvania high school teacher with “no prospects” but with a “life’s purpose — igniting the flames of literary passion in young minds.”
Linda teaches and grades kids. And when she dates, she “grades” them too, her red marker jotting judgements all over the screen around them — “arrogant,” “unmotivated,” “F.”
Then a star pupil (Michael Angarano) returns to town, an NYU play writing graduate with a play no one will produce, resigned to do as his father (Greg Kinnear) wants and go to law school. Linda reads the play, weeps over “The Chrysalis,” and resolves to keep Jason in the literary world. She enlists the school’s self-dramatized drama teacher (Nathan Lane).
Mr. Kapinas has become “an artistic zombie,” doing endless productions of “Our Town” and “The Importance of Being Earnest.” They’ll do this “transformative” show — an edgy piece with violence and death in it — at school. Jason will rediscover his voice and his sense of purpose. Mr. Kapanis will renew his love of the theater. And Linda? Her life’s work will be vindicated, her passion proven to have not been in vain.
What’s fun here is the cast, with Moore playing a frugal straight-arrow who does one thing after another that breaks character. Linda spends her own money to cover the budget, and her building up ex-student Jason’s ego culminates with sex on her desk. Lane could vamp this drama teacher in his sleep, regaling his students with tales of auditioning for Sondheim, singing “Putting It Together” as a pep talk, with the song covering a split-screen montage of rehearsal moments.
Lily Collins (“Mirror Mirror”) is a star student who swoons a little too much in Jason’s presence to be healthy. Charlie Saxton (“Workaholics”) is the cynical acting student who insults the playwright and the play. Kinnear gets to play “the bad guy,” the doctor dad who is done with indulging his kids’ dreams of breaking into that “racket.”
But even that casting is a tad on-the-nose, as predictable as the script’s depiction of the downward spiral of the play’s production, Linda’s scandalous blunders and the growing evidence of Jason’s immaturity and unprofessionalism. That sense that it’s all pre-ordained mutes the film’s potential big laughs and makes even the chuckles few and far between.
As an English teacher might put it, they aimed (and missed) at light comedy when they should have reached for farce.
MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexual content
Cast: Julianne Moore, Michael Angarano, Nathan Lane, Lily Collins, Greg Kinnear,
Credits: Directed by Craig Zisk, written by Dan Chariton and Stacy Chariton. A Cinedigm/Tribeca release.
Running time: 1:33