‘The English Teacher’: Jolly good

May 17, 2013

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I often note how difficult it is to create a comedy that’s not only smart and funny but also charming and surprising. But first-time director Craig Zisk, a TV veteran, has done that with “The English Teacher,” which opens in limited release today (5/17/13) and is already available on VOD.

Like a witty update on Jane Austen, the script by Dan and Stacy Charlton details the life of a single woman, Linda Sinclair. As played by Julianne Moore with deliciously mousy energy, she’s a high school English teacher who, at 45, is a dedicated spinster (though we see her various abortive – and judgmental – attempts at dating).

Linda gets her satisfaction from the small pleasures in her life: opening young minds to the joys of literature, eating health-conscious meals for one while watching “A Room With a View” on DVD. But her life changes one night at an ATM when she pepper-sprays what she thinks is a mugger (despite the fact that she lives in cozy, tiny Kingston, Pa.).

The mugger turns out to be one of her former students, Jason (Michael Angarano), a promising writer who has come out of NYU with a finished play and no prospects for producing it. He’s ready to chuck writing altogether and go to law school. But Linda, for whom Jason’s talent is a shining moment in her teaching career, reads his play and decides she can’t let that happen.

So she shows his script to the high-school drama teacher, Carl (Nathan Lane), who falls for it as hard as she does. Or maybe it’s that he’s tired of directing “Our Town” and “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Jason’s play is dark and heavily symbolic, which disturbs the high school’s principal (Jessica Hecht) and her Number Two (Norbert Leo Butz). But Carl promises (falsely, just to keep things moving) that he will cut the play’s double-suicide ending.

Once production starts, things start to unravel. Linda finds herself embroiled in Jason’s relationship with his father (Greg Kinnear), who seems to be trying to control Jason’s life. She has a brief and unexpected assignation with Jason, then decides it’s inappropriate and calls a halt to it – only to find herself consumed with jealousy when he begins canoodling with an actress in the cast. Suddenly her world begins to unravel in ways she – and Jane Austen – never imagined.

Yet there’s nothing outrageous or unbelievable in the sequence of events that unfolds. The writers keep the focus on Linda and her circumscribed little existence. She has all the answers in the classroom and assumes the same thing about her life. But life isn’t that neat.

Dressed in neat but dowdy costumes, her face hidden behind a hideous pair of aviator glasses and some drastic bangs, Moore shows physical-comedy chops that are both admirable and quite funny. Most of all, she captures the sense of surprise and befuddlement this woman falls into as she goes deeper and deeper down this particular rabbit hole.

I’m a sucker for backstage stories that use the blend of ego and vulnerability of theater folk as fodder for humor. Lane couldn’t be more perfectly cast as the drama teacher; but this isn’t a full-on exhibition of theatrical flamboyance. Lane does capture the optimism and, perhaps, self-deception that keeps this man plugging away in the face of daunting obstacles.

The rest of the cast – including the underrated Angarano as the immature playwright and Kinnear as his (eventually) understandably snappish father, as well as Butz and Hecht in tasty roles – is terrific. They get their moments but also know how to support and provide points of conflict.

“The English Teacher” is a witty delight, a film about a woman who has been in denial about her own life for too long. It’s a small but very funny treat with a cast to die for.

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