Review: ‘The English Teacher’
Despite featuring another go-for-broke performance from the always-superb Julianne Moore, The English Teacher feels like a hodgepodge of classic high school flicks that have come before. At its best, Dan and Stacey Chariton’s script sparkles with a refined whimsy and subtle, knowing wit reminiscent of genre gems like Election, and Easy A, but often their film rests in the same tired student/teacher clichés that have characterized the more mundane examples of these films for decades. Talented TV director, Craig Zisk, does his best to elevate the work, but he too seems unable to fashion the movie with a singular tone and or clear-cut point of view. Fortunately, there’s always Moore, and her skilled castmates to distract from the film’s often glaring inadequacies.
Like her agoraphobic literary heroines, The Bronte Sisters, High School English teacher, Linda Sinclair (Moore) has sacrificed much of her own life to the gossamer of genteel yet all-encompassing love evidenced in the classic novels that she’s devoured since childhood. In fact, such is her affinity for the romantic foibles of her beloved Brit Lit that even her inner monologue (voiced by the always-welcome Fiona Shaw) sparkles with the elegantly crisp diction of The Queen’s English.
Naturally, Linda has yet to find her own Darcy, but she is quite content to devote herself to her young students, inspiring their teenage minds with her profound love of the written word. One such pupil is Jason Sherwood (Michael Angarano), a former student and literary prodigy who left Kingston, PA for the bright lights of Manhattan but has since returned home with his tail between his legs.
Linda Sinclair knows a bit about dashed dreams, and after reading Jason’s superb new unproduced work, she is convinced that a Kingston High production of his play is exactly what the young writer needs to get his creative mojo back. Things get a bit complicated though when Drama Department Head, Mr. Kapinas (Nathan Lane) a muted artist in his own right, decides to stage the controversial, penetrating play, and mounts a budget-defying, over-the-top production, the likes of which Kingston has never seen before. Now Linda must attempt to reign in her coworker, not to mention constantly assuage the brilliantly petulant Jason, as well as fend off a pretty young student (Lily Collins) who seems ready to compete for his affections.
Yes, we’ve seen similar scenarios in high school pics before, however it’s not the familiarity that prevents this film from soaring. The Chariton’s script seems unable to decide exactly what it wants to be; at times the film plays as classic bildungsroman, while at others, thoughtful examination of loneliness and regret, and then moments later, as witty high school satire. Indefinability like this might work in the hands of a more skilled director, but in this case, it just leads to a glaring tonal incongruity.
That’s because unfortunately, director Craig Zisk, possesses a TV director’s gift for character blocking and shooting dialogue, but has not yet developed the cinematic clarity and point of view of the more experienced Motion Picture helmers. Thus while aiming for Merchant Ivory lush romanticism, he actually lands in the realm of Hamlet 2 (not a bad movie, just not Howard’s End). Though the scenes between Moore’s teacher and Angarano’s young artist work the best and are truly reminiscent of Alexander Payne’s brilliant Election.
It helps that the filmmakers did make all of the right decisions when it came to casting. Julianne Moore, coming off the spectacular What Maisie Knew still knows how to knock em out of the park every time, while Angarano continues to prove that he is every bit the screen presence/charisma cat that Shia Lebeouf is (and a hell of a lot nicer). His chemistry with Moore is palpable as they both turn what could be an unlikable twosome into sympathetically complex, real people. Greg Kinnear and Nathan Lane are also welcome sights in small but meaty roles, while gorgeous Lily Collins demonstrates that she certainly knows how to seduce a camera lens, even if the verdict is still out on her acting.
Clearly though, this is Julianne Moore’s show and worth seeing just to watch the actress rip into another deeply flawed and hilariously real character. Buoyed as well by a great cast, adequate direction, and a script that occasionally rises above it’s own schizophrenia to crackle with wit, The English Teacher, is a pleasant and fun little diversion, even if it will probably be forgotten by the time you’ve validated your parking,