A potentially incisive character study is buried under layers of fluff in The English Teacher. When Pennsylvania high-school literature instructor Linda Sinclair (Julianne Moore) encounters former prize student Jason Sherwood (Michael Angarano), who has returned home after flaming out in New York, she is momentarily disappointed that he hasn’t lived up to his promise. But when she reads his unproduced play, she is convinced that it’s a masterpiece. Whether she is responding to the work or flattering herself by deciding that her protégé is a budding genius is hard to say.
Alas, The English Teacher isn’t interested in probing such themes. Instead, it’s a flimsy backstage farce about the problems that mount after Linda persuades her school’s dubious principal (Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz) to mount the show, which has the Kafkaesque title of The Chrysalis, despite its mature content.
This plot line is common enough to be predictable: The show will have a vainglorious director (the inevitably cast Nathan Lane), who gets swept up in his own lofty rhetoric. There will be potentially disastrous hanky-panky among the creative personnel. The playwright will throw a tantrum and storm off the set before opening night. The show will go on anyway in front of a packed house.
Predictability isn’t always a bad thing, but to overcome a sense of familiarity, a film has to hit its marks with precision and The English Teacher isn’t especially agile. Director Craig Zisk, a sitcom veteran, doesn’t do anything interesting visually and leans heavily on a cloying musical score to push the action along. His one stylistic gimmick, which is to have Linda’s mental notes about her various bad dates (including a righteously mustachioed John Hodgman), appear onscreen as red-inked text, is more cute than inspired.
The bigger problem is that the husband-and-wife writing team of Dan and Stacey Chariton can’t decide whether they want to flatter or talk down to their audience. The script is littered with upper-middlebrow allusions to the likes of Charles Dickens and Stephen Sondheim, but the storytelling is completely remedial, starting with the faux-literary voice-over that fills in the details of the protagonist’s spinsterhood. It doesn’t help that the Charitons are evasive when it comes to their depiction of Jason’s magnum opus, which is seen only in small chunks and seems laughably pretentious.
Moore, one of the great face-scrunchers of contemporary cinema, is right in her wheelhouse playing a character at the mercy of conflicting, overwhelming impulses. Linda wants to do right by Jason’s artistry while also sorting out her attraction to the author, who responds by developing a crush on the underage actress (Lily Collins) cast as his distaff onstage surrogate. Compared with her bravura work impersonating Sarah Palin in Game Change, Moore’s work in The English Teacher might seem like a minor accomplishment, but she is still the movie’s saving grace.
Angarano, who played a striving writer in Gentlemen Broncos, never quite gets a bead on his character, while Greg Kinnear just coasts in the thankless role of Jason’s father, who becomes a more age-appropriate suitor for Linda’s affections. The actor looks as though he would rather be somewhere else, and by the time The English Teacher limps to the credits, it’s hard to begrudge him too much.
Special to The Globe and Mail