"The English Teacher" is a tragedy masquerading as a comedy and doing a disservice to both. The same could be said for the film's normally fine cast. Julianne Moore, Greg Kinnear, Nathan Lane and Michael Angarano have all had better days.
The movie begins with a stereotype. Linda Sinclair (Moore) is the teacher of the title. Middle-aged, single with cats, she teaches high school English in a small Pennsylvania town. Her passion is saved for her students and the literary greats whose writing she loves most of all.
Only a taste of her classroom fire makes it into the movie, not nearly enough to put Linda in league with Robin Williams in "Dead Poets Society" or Richard Dreyfuss in "Mr. Holland's Opus." Even so, Moore and the rest of the actors make the best of what they've got, turning in passable performances in this failing enterprise.
To some extent, director Craig Zisk does too, using a light touch, setting a brisk pace and wrapping things up in about an hour and a half. The end could not come soon enough. Screenwriting spouses Dan and Stacy Chariton have the bones of a story but don't yet have the hang of how to flesh things out in interesting ways. It is their first collaboration to make it to the big screen.
The film's only real excitement comes when former student and aspiring playwright Jason Sherwood (Angarano) slips an unproduced manuscript under the door for her to read.
Linda had bumped into Jason a few days earlier — long enough to find out that he hadn't made a go of it in New York's theater scene and that his father was pressing him to drop writing for law school. Both travesties of justice in her mind. It's clear Jason was one of her favorites.
That the adoring teacher loves Jason's play does not come as a surprise. Enthused, she passes it on to drama teacher Carl (Lane bringing his typical theatrical flair), who decides this must be this year's school play.
Meanwhile Jason's "overbearing" dad, played by Kinnear, who is simply not cut out to "overbear," resists. A doctor, dad wants his son involved in more serious pursuits. Jason's artistic insecurities, a string of production problems and the play's surly teen protagonist who questions Jason's talent all come along to stir things up.
The various literary conceits the movie tries to play with do not pan out, but that's not the central problem. "The English Teacher's" major conflict hangs on a soap-opera-styled romantic entanglement between teacher and former student, which begins with sex on her desk and soon overwhelms everything else.
Jason's in his 20s now, so age, per se, is not the issue. But it quickly puts the events that follow in an unsavory light. When Linda gets jealous of Jason's attraction to lead actress Halle (Lily Collins), who also happens to be one of her top students, things start to get ugly. And implausible. And then even more implausible. (There's a much finer turn by Moore in another movie out this week, "What Maisie Knew.")
The particular place teachers hold — especially the really good ones who inspire students to greatness — makes it tough to turn romantic dalliances like Linda and Jason's into a laughing matter. Yet that is what "The English Teacher" relies on. I'd suggest taking a hall pass instead of seeing this one.
'The English Teacher'
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Playing: Sundance 5, West Hollywood; Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino; Laemmle Playhouse, Pasadena
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