Apropos of its title, The English Teacher feels like a movie written as a homework assignment: There’s a concise three-act structure, characters who each get their life-changing arc and a cast of supporting players intended for comic relief. Written by Dan and Stacy Chariton and directed by Craig Zisk (a veteran of TV shows such as Nurse Jackie and Parks and Recreation), the picture is perfectly watchable but rarely compelling, because the filmmakers are too timid to take any chances.
The potential was great. Julianne Moore stars as Linda, a 45-year-old high school teacher in small-town Pennsylvania who has devoted herself to instilling a love of literature in her students: She assigns them Dickens and Bronte and Austen, and they happily devour them and ask for more. Linda derives so much satisfaction from her job that she doesn’t seem to need anything else. She goes on occasional dates, but the men always disappoint her. She eats dinner on her coffee table while watching TV. Although her life sounds lonely and cold — she doesn’t even own a cat! — Linda is actually quite happy.
Or at least she thinks she is. The plot of The English Teacher centers on the return of one of Linda’s students, Jason (Michael Angarano), who was a star pupil and gifted writer who moved to New York to become a playwright and has come home defeated and despondent, ready to take the advice of his father (Greg Kinnear) and go to law school. While he was away, Jason wrote one play, which was never produced. When Linda and the school’s drama teacher read it (Nathan Lane), they proclaim the work a masterpiece and demand it be performed as a student production. So what if the last scene involves a hanging and a guy shooting himself in the face?
Through a series of coincidences and lapses of judgment, The English Teacher starts pushing Linda out of her comfort zone, and all those feelings she had managed to tuck away, seemingly forever, start rising to the surface. The old spinster road is no longer an option, and as Linda starts exploiting her authority in unethical ways, the film seems to be heading into the same comedic turf of Alexander Payne’s Election — high school as allegory for moral and political corruption.
Unfortunately, the story goes soft when it should be at its most daring: The film loses its bite. Despite Moore’s terrific performance as a typically calm and methodical woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, The English Teacher ends up all soft and cuddly, with happy endings for everyone. My high school English teacher would have thrown this script back at me and demanded a rewrite — with feeling this time.
Cast: Julianne Moore, Michael Angarano, Nathan Lane, Greg Kinnear, Lily Collins, Fiona Shaw.
Director: Craig Zisk.
Screenwriters: Dan Chariton, Stacy Chariton.
Producers: Matthew E. Chause, Naomi Despres, Robert Salerno.
A Cinedigm studios release. Running time: 93 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, adult themes. Plays in Miami-Dade only at O Cinema Miami Shores through June 2.