Born from mostly pleasant parts, Craig Zisk’s The English Teacher is a frothy foil to most mainstream comedies masquerading as such. It nicely blends a coming of (old) age tale with what is clearly a love/hate relationship with the emotions associated with writing and theater, chiefly seeing one’s work realized in the fashion originally envisioned. Lead by a company of fine thesps doing equally fine work, this dramedy is an easy watch even when those aforementioned amiable parts are far less effective when singled out.
From the opening scene The English Teacher suggests we’re in for a completely different film from what ultimately unfolds, due in no small part to the disembodied, whimsical voiceover narration which is snatched right from the clutches of wonderful entertainment such as Pushing Daises and Stranger Than Fiction. Unsurprisingly, simply extracting effective elements from other, better fare does not a good decision make, nor does tossing the approach back into the mix for the finale after being absent for the prior 90-or-so minutes. It’s a perplexing decision and one that while not fatal to the overall movie, is a sticking point that can’t be overlooked.
Thankfully at least that’s where the bizarre narrative decisions cease and what remains is a fairly straightforward comedy of errors with character arcs while polite enough, don’t exactly push the boundaries of the genre. We’re introduced to Julianne Moore’s Linda Sinclair, a meek spinster whose dedication to her job as (you guessed it) a high school English teacher is matched only by her adoration for literature and the number of failed rendezvous upon which she has embarked. Enter, stage right, a former student named Jason (Michael Angarano) who has returned to town after failing to make it big in The Big Apple but for whom Linda still holds a place of esteem. She enthusiastically suggests they adapt his play as a high school production and thus the lark begins.
Also swirling around this escapade is Jason’s father (Greg Kinnear), the school’s drama director (Nathan Lane) and the play’s lead (Lily Collins). Collectively, they are all strong though I will say at times Moore plays her character as too timid, and when she is required to breakdown emotionally or rise to the occasion (particularly in a vocal way) it rings somewhat false. Kinnear is perhaps the funniest and most charming of the bunch even if from the get-go it’s very obvious where his character is headed. By far the biggest surprise for me was Nathan Lane, a man who when overdoing it even a tad is utterly grating. For The English Teacher however, the former Broadway star keeps things tight and restrained and as such is thoroughly a delight.
By far The English Teacher’s biggest inadequacy is how these characters transition between emotions, more specifically how they interact with others after certain events unfold. In one scene there will be a bile-spewing feud and in the next everything seems to be fairly simpatico. Likewise, a character may seem adamantly against how things are progressing, either with the play or another conflict but then come around only when it’s convenient for the story, not when the appropriate arc should deem it so (if at all).
Similarly, in order to get the play approved, Linda offers to pay for any expenses that go over budget and in doing so nearly goes bankrupt. Needless to say nobody in their right mind would do this for such a production. Then there is a rather ugly subplot with the much older Jason engaging in a physical relationship with a student, who even if 18 at the time still makes the skin itch. In and of themselves these pitfalls are fairly inconsequential, but when held up as a group it really harms the flow and heart of the story.
All that being said The English Teacher is never boring, the cast is engaging and from beginning to end there isn’t one element in particular that demanded I throw my hands up in defeat and struggle to finish. That latter statement may sound like faint praise but when so many cinematic efforts collapse at the end due to contrivance after gimmick, the film’s ability to remain level headed and generally effervescent is a winning quality. So while born from well-worm and sometimes misguided components The English Teacher is worth a look for having its heart in the right place.