The English Teacher, Review

A modest, if pleasant essay on kinky academics

Teaching kids the depths of classic literature is hard. Living like a kid in them is even harder. That is the gist of Craig Zisk’s essay on quirky academics in this weekend’s The English Teacher. Intended on making a harmlessly good-natured comedic vehicle for Julianne Moore to headline, Zisk brings his extensive Showtime credits, on series like Weeds and The Big C, to the big screen where he envisions a small Pennsylvania town dripping with the most syrupy of indie conventions.  Kingston, Pennsylvania is the kind of place where everyone is a bit off due to their smiling natures. Each face masks a secret and that secret is always going to be hopelessly charming and adorable. For example, the gorgeous Ms. Moore plays Linda Sinclair, a popular and respected….spinster. Who still looks like Julianne Moore. Miss Linda Sinclair is the beloved English teacher of her high school where she has devoted decades of her existence. It is there that she imparts her lifelong passion for reading great literature to the next generation and dreams. She dreams of finding a lover to sweep her off her feet like the dashing Heathcliff or the wise Professor Bhaer. With such high expectations for her life, she has given up the local Pennsylvania dating pool all together. Oh, but she dreams. And yet, on one fateful evening in the fortuitous rendezvous of a vacant bank parking lot, Linda reunites with one of her old students. Well, actually he comes to say hi and she sprays him in the eyes with mace. But it was surely destiny, as Jason Sherwood (Michael Angarano) was one of her greatest students. He even went to NYU to pursue a career as a struggling New York playwright. Well he got the struggling part down, at least. Jason has returned home to attend law school under the watchful eye of his father Dr. Tom Sherwood (Greg Kinnear). Convinced that Jason is a victim of Tom’s unloving cynicism, Linda convinces the young writer to allow her high school to produce his unwanted play for the production! She even enlists the fabulous and flighty help of Drama teacher Carl Kapinas (Nathan Lane). Together, the two educators intend to go to the bat against the brutish indifference of uncouth school administrators and unsympathetic parents. And maybe…just maybe, the now-25 Jason will find his muse in Miss Sinclair; if she can keep him away from 18-year-old ingénue Halle Anderson (Lily Collins) long enough.  The English Teacher makes for an affably generic course in quirky humor. Most of the characters are written to have their eyebrows raised higher than even the material is meant to seem at times. It knows that it is a knowing look at the convoluted mess of humanity. Despite starring a teacher determined to instill classical knowledge to youths, Linda will act a child around Tom every time they bump into one another at the gym. He is such a pig for not nurturing his sensitive son! Likewise, Jason poses as a tortured artist, but the only people who can see through all the pretensions are a couple of teenage smartasses who do not see the point. Probably because there is not much of one.  Julianne Moore is terrific at playing the neurotic teacher who believes herself to be above everyone else in her community. The way her judging smile curls across her cheeks while the inner-monologue explains how she sees every deceiving man in her life is almost as cutely humorous as the idea that her glasses are supposed to give off the appearance of a plain Jane. The classic irony is underlined all the more colorfully in red ink by the voice of the narrator being the very British Fiona Shaw. However, like a high school paper on The Scarlet Letter, all viewers should know where these well-worn tropes are headed. Linda sees only the beauty of the soul in Jason, but we see he is spending far too much time with Collins’s lovely and surely innocent looking teenager. If this is to be a farcical romp about sex, is it too much to ask for it to be a funny one? While the film marks Zisk’s first theatrical effort, it brings many of the advantages (and weaknesses) of the subversive comedies from premium cable. It makes for a pleasant and watchable piece for Moore, as well as a showcase for wacky side characters. The highlight of which is, unsurprisingly, Lane mugging it up as a high school teacher with tall tales of his time in Alphabet City and meeting Stephen Sondheim. There are other nods to theatre geeks and Broadway faithful alike, such as Norbert Leo Butz’s genuinely hilarious cameo as Vice Principal Phil Pelaski. The two-time Tony Award winning musical actor shows up as a tone-deaf educator whose only advice on theatre is for it to be “loud for the cheap seats” and free of any teenage suicide or sex. However, on the whole, the final movie is about as dry as the VP’s requests. There is some sex, including between a former student and his high school fantasy, but it never elicits more than a chuckle. Instead of being shocking or giggle inducing, it is like the rest of the movie and its rooted niche comedy: Expected and somewhat uncomfortable.  Angarano and Kinnear do fine work as the two Sherwoods. The younger has that angsty overcast necessary to ensnare the most gullible, young and old, when he spends his free time posting pouty Jack Kerouac quotes on Facebook. In contrast, Kinnear does a superb job as the irritated but friendly father who cannot fathom why his son’s past teacher is just so mean to him. Unfortunately, like the film, they just kind of go through the motions until the pleasant, but utterly guessable ending. Life may not be the epic romance Moore’s English teacher dreams about, but this movie isn’t exactly the clever farce it imagines, either. Den of Geek Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Stars


3 out of 5