Despite Moore, 'English Teacher' Fumbles Lessons, Laughs

Directed by: Craig Zisk; Runtime: 93 minutes
Grade: C-

Taboo hookups, a troublesome high-school theater production, and a lonely and repressed bookworm holding out for Mr. Absolutely Right lie at the center of The English Teacher, a genre-defiant indie from versatile TV director Craig Zisk. Blending catastrophic downfall with broad situation comedy in a method often found in the works of Alexander Payne and Wes Anderson, it's a film that would like to convey messages about sticking with aspirations and those empowering "make it work" moments, as well as the dishonesty and demands that breed from dealing with creative endeavors. Unfortunately, a tedious, uneven character study manifests here that drops the ball in establishing an authentic downward spiral of an idealistic teacher, despite a flexible performance from Julianne Moore that's well above the substance of her part. Mix that with cumbersome humor and some difficulty in buying the premise as it moves along, and you've got a tiresome satirical tragedy direly lacking in laughs and realized intentions.

Fanciful, novelesque narration gets us up to speed: high-school English professor Linda Sinclair (Julianne Moore, A Single Man) lives a frugal and isolated life, full of disastrous first dates and dedicated curriculum-following. Despite being a "passionate" person, she simply doesn't have a lot of passion in her life, and it's mostly self-inflicted by her sheltered love for the safety of literature. That is, until an ex-student of hers, Jason Sherwood (Michael Arangano, The Forbidden Kingdom), stumbles into her life by coincidence, armed with a defeatist grad-student attitude and a dark, angst-driven play, "The Chrysalis", that he couldn't get produced. Finally taking a stand with the fire brewing inside her, Linda champions his play -- after reading it, of course -- by attempting to get her school to put it on in place of their regular, rusty productions, under the direction of the indulgent theater director, Carl Kapinas (a typically charismatic Nathan Lane, Mousehunt). But by fronting Jason, Linda also shoulders the emotional (and financial) stress of making it happen in a high-school environment, becoming problematic as the writer's true colors emerge.

Penned by Dan and Stacy Chariton, the script for The English Teacher begins earnestly enough for a lighter dramatic-comedy, painting a sympathetic portrait of Linda as her enthusiasm awakens shortly after her reading of Jason's script. The writers' grasp on sharp dialogue helps, elevating somewhat stale scenes where Sinclair proposes "The Chrysalis" to the school's administrators and where she discusses the opportunity to produce the play with Jason. Clear themes of dedication, teacher-student inspiration, and creative sacrifice for the opportunity to realize one's work quickly take shape, occurring between happenstance run-ins with Jason's controlling father, Tom (Greg Kinnear, As Good As It Gets), who seems to be the central inspiration behind his son's largely metaphorical and bleakly emotional writing. An air of familiarity covers nearly everything in Zisk's film, sure, from the unsupportive dad and neglected artistic child to the closeted person in need of rejuvenation (and lovin'), but he taps into a pleasant degree of charm and forthright emotion that seems like it'll shape this sugary fare.

This, however, ultimately isn't the purpose of The English Teacher, becoming blatantly obvious once Ms. Sinclair experiences a rapid, ludicrous descent into the politics of producing the play and skirting those teacher-student guidelines, driven in plays at discomforting humor by her own erratic decisions and ease of being manipulated. Julianne Moore adds her sprightly spark to Linda's mousy desire to embrace this passion project, giving weight to her naive mannerisms as she's confronted with challenges to her resolve and bottled-up romantic nature. She's such an unwieldy character, though, that it's hard to figure out whether the outlandish things she's responsible for -- how she spends her money, who she sleeps with, how she reacts to students, the lies she tells -- seem fitting of the reserved personality portrayed in the film's narration, leaving one to ponder the common sense of the events that transpire. Her story becomes a frustrating trainwreck to behold, and her unruly relationships with Jason and a fellow student, the show's headliner Halle (Lily Collins, Mirror Mirror), make it exponentially more difficult to sympathize with her suffering.

Neither the overt humor nor the purpose-driven farcical drama in The English Teacher compliment Linda's plummet as successfully as they do in similar stories, such as Rushmore and Election, leaving a film full of idiosyncratic twists involving age gaps and gossip with little point beyond pushing the limit of how bad her situation can get. Eventually, the narration reappears and urges Linda not to do something that's against her personality type, a cute way of bookending the film with metafiction. What's odd is that I was left in the same mental space as the conservative narrator, baffled that she's continuing to make reckless choices after all that's happened ... and that things still seem to be working out despite them. Director Zisk would probably like to leave the audience hopeful for the English teacher, that she's been dragged through the mud enough and might deserve a moment in the sun. Frankly, though, it's hard to buy that she'd deserve this big of a pass, even if Julianne Moore makes a compelling case otherwise.

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