There's a market for everything. I'm sure they teach that at Harvard Business School, but it's also just common sense. As hard as it might be for me to believe, the fact of the matter is that, somewhere out there, a moviegoer is wishing they could see a film just like the 2008 Steve Coogan vehicle "Hamlet 2," but with none of the bite or incisive wit. For that person, and that person alone, there's "The English Teacher."
"The English Teacher," from TV vet Craig Zisk ("Parks and Recreation," "Scrubs," "Grounded For Life," "Brooklyn Bridge" and many others,) is a tone-deaf comedy flipping like a gasping fish between silly and maudlin. Despite a lead performance by the always welcome Julianne Moore it is rudderless in its presentation and outright stupid in its central conceits. To make matters worse it is 100 percent predictable, so there aren't even shocks to wake your from the unfunny torpor. I pride myself on giving each movie a chance, but I wasn't 45 seconds into this film the first of many red flags popped up. (That would be the annoying fake storybook voiceover.) By minute 85 I was simply moaning "ennnnd, ennnnd, pleeeeease ennnnnd."
Moore plays a 45 year old unwed English teacher in Picket Fence, USA who believes herself to be happy merely living single and introducing kids to literature. (How condescending is it that this movie just takes it on faith that we the audience know how much she desperately wants a man?) An opening montage of bad dates - taken from three hundred thousand sitcoms - is the best part of the movie.
One night she happens upon an old student played by Michael Angarano, who was quite amusing in "The Brass Teapot." (Actually, she pepper sprays him, thinking him a burglar, one of the few funny gags in the picture.) He's living at home having washed out in New York after graduating from NYU's dramatic writing program. His dad (Greg Kinnear, natch) is helping him prep for law school, but Moore takes a look at his unproduced play and falls in love.
She's quick to enthrall the theater teacher (Nathan Lane on autopilot) and next thing you know they're putting on a show. Suddenly, everyone is taking this very seriously (like refusing to make story adjustments, spending all kinds of money) as if a high school play in the middle of nowhere means anything.
Alexandre Payne's "Election" is a marvelous movie because it offers up student government as an allegory for politics while still getting to play with the conventions of the high school film. "The English Teacher" does none of this. "The English Teacher" goes through the motions of allegedly dramatic romantic misunderstandings and overblown backstage hijinks. Zisk's sitcom roots show to an embarrassing degree with kids hiding behind cars with cellphone cams and goofy sound effects cues that seem ripped from an episode of "Scooby Doo."
At the heart of it, though, is poor Julianne Moore, acting her heart out. In every scene there are instances of her making "good choices." Unexpected actorly tics and line readings that would go over really well . . . on a show like "Parks and Recreation." But "The English Teacher" it's an avalanche of these moments. Zisk has no idea how to pace a feature film (to be fair, he isn't given much of a chance with Dan and Stacy Chariton's abysmal script) so he simply goes all-in on Moore's natural talent. Sometimes there is a pastry that is just too sweet.
Jessica Hecht and Norbert Leo Butz play the Principal and Vice Principal and they're very funny because they pop in for quick, snack-sized scenes at an arm's length from the uninteresting central drama. There are times when you come away from a bad movie liking the side characters saying "boy, if they only made a movie about THEM!" My gut suspicion, however, is that you'd also need a new writing and directing team to make that work.
SCORE: 2.0 / 10
"The English Teacher" is playing at the Tribeca Film Festival, and it is also available on iTunes and VOD.