Film Score: Rob Simonsen Cinematography: Vanja Cernjul
Starring: Julianne Moore, Greg Kinnear, Nathan Lane and Michael Angarano
Hannibal. And this film isn’t going to change that. In my review of The Search for John Gissing I talked about the fact that it would have been much better as a Ben Stiller film. In the case of The English Teacher, it would have been much better as an Alexander Payne film. As it stands, there are moments of genuine humor, but for the most part the rest of the film is a miss. For example, there is a very funny narration at the beginning of the film by the wonderful British actress Fiona Shaw . . . and then she completely disappears until the end of the film. A huge missed opportunity. And that’s really a metaphor for the entire film. It’s one gigantic missed opportunity.
Moore plays a high school English teacher who has been so caught up in the romance of novels all her life that she can’t settle for anything less in her real life. She gives bad grades to the men she meets and then runs back to the comfort of her literature as fast as she can. In a great early moment a former student walks up to her at an ATM and, in her fear, she shoots him with her can of pepper spray. But that’s about the last genuine moment she has in the film. The rest of Moore’s performance feels incredibly forced. And then, after she reads her former student’s play and loves it, the show is nearly taken over by Nathan Lane as the drama teacher. Furthermore, the principal and vice-principal parts, by Jessica Hecht and Norbert Leo Butz are complete comic book characters even though most of the rest of the characters aren’t really played that way.
And again, we have to sit through another disparaging portrayal of public school teachers. Not that they don’t deserve it, but not every teacher is having sex with students, former or otherwise, and it smacks of the way blacks are overrepresented on TV news as criminals. Once she calls off the “affair” her jealous reactions are equally inappropriate. And unlike the over-the-top plot of Election, which I think is what director Craig Zisk was going for, the half-baked version doesn’t really make it. The biggest problem the film has is that the characters are unbelievable and at the same time striving for verisimilitude which, again, doesn’t work. So, is the film a complete waste of time? Not exactly. There are some moments that resonate and save it from complete failure.
Greg Kinnear is the best thing going in this film. He is nicely realistic as the playwright’s father, and his portrayal seems just right. The star of the play, Lily Collins, also does a terrific job as the high school senior. She is flippant and confident during rehearsals and yet, on opening night, completely dissolves into nerves. It’s a very real moment. Once the ending finally comes, though, it feels tacked on and clichéd, and is ultimately unsatisfying. The English Teacher has not received very good reviews for all the reasons above. Fans of Julianne Moore will probably appreciate the film, but the real reason for watching is Greg Kinnear. Either way, however, casual romantic comedy fans will want to give this one a wide berth.