Thursday, May 23, 2013

The English Teacher

The suddenly ubiquitous Julianne Moore stars as Linda Sinclair, the title character in the exceedingly odd new comedy "The English Teacher." Long and lean, reserved and bookish, Linda lives to read, and teaches high school lit (mostly "A Tale of Two Cities," it seems) in Kingston, Pa., the hometown she never left.

While withdrawing money at her ATM one night, Linda is accosted by a young man in sweats. She pepper-sprays him, blinding him temporarily, before realizing it is her former student Jason Sherwood (cute, low-wattage Michael Angarano), who's just graduated from a prestigious NYU writing program but hasn't had anything produced and is being pressured by his doctor dad (Greg Kinnear, so low-key you almost forget he's there) to close up shop on his dreams and enter law school. Linda asks to read Jason's new play "The Chrysalis" (sort of like Kafka goes to Dublin) and he agrees, dropping it off during class the next day.

Linda reads it in one sitting and is moved to tears. She passes it on to the school's permanent-fixture drama coach, Carl Kapinas (Nathan Lane), who immediately takes it to the principal. If he has to stage "The Importance of Being Earnest" for the fifth time, he'll explode. And, he tells her ass-covering assistant, "If you picked our productions, we'd do 'Our Town' twice a year!" The principal agrees to stage "The Chrysalis" - hometown boy makes good and all that - if they cut the everybody-kills-himself ending. Linda won't budge, but Carl agrees to the cut. "Don't worry," he tells her outside, "We'll keep it. When you're in there, you've just got to keep it moving." Now, Nathan Lane is about as far from my sensibility as you can get, but his delivery of this line had me sitting up in bed last night still laughing. I can't recall him giving another performance as understated as here, and it's quite becoming.

Meanwhile, Linda and Jason share a stolen kiss in her classroom that turns into a desktop sexual encounter. Moore has shown comedic chops before - in certain scenes in "The Kids Are All Right," for example - but when Linda sees Jason and Hallie, the girl playing the lead in "The Chrysalis," touching each other playfully, she calls Hallie into her office to caution her against inappropriate behavior, and the scene builds exquisite comic tension that it delivers on in part.

"The English Teacher" really isn't a very good movie. It hurtles wildly in tone from one scene to the next, sometimes within individual scenes. Characters' behavior patterns do one-eighties and their motivations often remain inexplicable. Its Kingston is an only-in-the-movies world where child-endangering and even criminal behavior is handled internally (nobody ever calls the cops). At times, it has the queasy feeling of the short-lived Elizabeth Peña green-card-scam sitcom "I Married Dora," which ABC famously preceded with a don't-try-this-at-home warning. But it's a comedy, and in the end a comedy must be judged on whether it makes you laugh. "The English Teacher" made me laugh, out loud, a lot. As the late Roger Ebert said of "Cop and a Half," it's amusing, it moves and, somewhat to my surprise, I liked it.

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