Check out my “Scene Invasion” recap of our roundtable discussion with stars Julianne Moore and Michael Angarano HERE.
The inclination to set stories and conflict within a school (see Henry Alex Rubin’s Disconnect or Paul Weitz’ Admission) is growing, as is the need to contrive a far-fetched set of circumstances in order to do it. The English Teacher, directed by TV veteran Craig Zisk (Weeds, Parks and Recreation), does exactly that. However, because it quite successfully does what it sets out to do, I don’t really care. You can take away at least two principles from the film: Labels are only destructive, and nothing has to end the way it has to end.
The film opens on a narration (by Fiona Shaw), introducing Linda Sinclair (Julianne Moore) as an average woman with “a spinster’s life.” She manages to find the worst selection of men in her small town of Kingston, Pennsylvania, and her notes and the letter grades she gives them hover in the air in red ink; one C, a D-, and an F. When the F asks/forces her to pay the check, she can’t wave it high enough. Jason Sherwood meets half of Linda’s can of pepper spray, and they begin a relationship that starts out as something not unlike that between a mother and son. Jason (Michael Angarano) is a graduate of NYU, with a thesis play called The Chrysalis. And when he fails to get it produced in New York City, he moves back home with his father (Greg Kinnear) who pressures him to go to law school. But read-oholic Linda insists on reading Jason’s play, and she loves it; she is so moved by it that it would somehow become a personal failure of her own if the world doesn’t know Jason’s play.
When I say that Jason and Linda begin with a mother-son relationship, I emphasize that that’s how they begin. When Linda calls to rave about The Chrysalis, Jason innocuously grabs at his groin area….anyway, what develops is less innocuous. There is a kind-of-love triangle between Jason, Linda, and Halle Anderson (Lily Collins, who appropriately plays the character Jane Sherwood in Jason Sherwood’s play). It’s really just two diagonals connecting Jason to Linda first, and then to Halle later. There’s no bottom line there.
This movie is allowed to call itself a comedy for one reason: Nathan Lane. He is the drama instructor who has directed nearly 40 school plays; he was once in the same room as Stephen Sondheim for 30 seconds. So he’s over-qualified. In less capable hands, the role would be whittled down to scene stealing one liners, such as asking a smart-ass student “Did you take your ritalin today?” But in Lane’s overqualified hands, it’s still pretty much just that. However, his character acts as somewhat of a silver-lining for Linda. She evolves from someone who probably isn’t a virgin but you can’t say that for sure, into a “slut” (a word which pops up in red ink as if its a grade) because of one video that the smart-ass on ritalin just happened to capture. High school is cruel. Or at least that’s what Hollywood keeps telling me. The way we see Linda’s evolution proves that Julianne Moore is still at the top of her game. The indiscretions of a screenplay fulfilling its obligations are minuscule in the bigger picture.