Film Review: The English Teacher

This theatre-centric frolic has a clever, pleasing start, but sadly degenerates into bland formula stuff.

Linda Sinclair (Julianne Moore), a high-school English teacher in upstate New York, would definitely have been happier in the days of Jane Austen or Emily Bronte. But, given the spinsterish hand she has been dealt, she makes do, contented with her job and her books, having given up on the hapless men she meets and whom she grades as ruthlessly as any of her students. But when she encounters former student Jason Sherwood (Michael Angarano), who has returned from Manhattan with an unproduced NYU thesis play under his arm, she is galvanized by his talent and determines to have her school produce it.

Linda enlists the aid of drama instructor Carl Kapinas (Nathan Lane), but runs into opposition from her administrators (Jessica Hecht and Norbert Leo Butz), Jason’s largely absentee dad (Greg Kinnear), and even Jason himself, unhappy with certain high-school compromises which have to be made in the production. Undaunted, Linda barrels ahead, soothing Jason with bland equivocations, writing sizeable checks from her personal account to cover elaborate visionary Kapinas’ budget overruns, and eventually getting quite heatedly involved with the playwright himself.

With The English Teacher, veteran TV director Craig Zisk (“Weeds,” “United States of Tara”) and screenwriters Dan and Stacy Chariton have fashioned a smooth entertainment. Perhaps too smooth, because for all its tangy observation about high-school theatricals and its excellent cast, what begins as a promisingly biting romp set in the groves of adolescent academia settles into an all-too-familiar movie pattern, with life lessons arduously learned, romantic misunderstandings, heartwarming reconciliations, and a starry-eyed happy ending for Linda with, finally, the right man.

Moore is competent, but this uptight, bespectacled role is such a fit for Tina Fey that I couldn’t help but imagine her in it, and rather yearned for her more pointedly precise comic attack and organic vulnerability. Angarano is, as always, charming, but Jason is a pretty shallowly conceived character, filled with fuzzily delineated, random angst, and the actor is unable to round him out. Kinnear also does what he can but, again, cannot do much with his similarly limited role, which suddenly—and unconvincingly—morphs from paternalistic bully to well-meaning but misunderstood caring guy. The school kids—with their occasional outbursts of precocity or rebellion—are sitcom-bland.

It is left to the terrific stage New York actors in supporting parts to provide most of the film’s spunk. Hecht, who is currently giving a radiantly charming performance in Richard Greenberg’s smart play The Assembled Parties, and comic treasure Butz bring so much spirited energy to their limited moments that you almost wish the film were about them instead. And Lane, even cast as the kind of flamboyant theatre geek he could play in his sleep, gives flavorful gusto when he whines over the faculty suggestion that he mount The Importance of Being Earnest yet again: “If I have to spend another two months making trays of cucumber sandwiches, I will curl up in a fetal position and die.”