' ' Cinema Romantico: The English Teacher

Monday, April 27, 2015

The English Teacher

Linda Sinclair (Julianne Moore) is “The English Teacher” in question, a spinster, per the word employed by the film’s narrator (Fiona Shaw) who speaks as if the movie were adapted from a book Pam, Oscar and Toby would have discussed at a meeting of The Finer Things Club. Yet Linda seems content leading a life of wish fulfillment through her beloved heightened romantic literature – at least, that is, until she encounters a former student, Jason Sherwood (Michael Angarano), whose big dreams of being a thriving NYC playwright have gone bust. When she volunteers to read his thesis play, she likes it so much she pitches it to the school’s drama teacher, Carl Kapinas (Nathan Lane), who is, as he must be, convinced his amateur auditorium is the Barrymore. And so, Linda and Jason will mount a play, and they will, uh, well, mount each other, as she essentially transforms into an impassioned and persecuted heroine straight out of a novel.

Jason’s character is unfortunately left wanting. Though his declaration of the play being very “personal” is quickly exposed as false, nicely skewering the whole Write What You Know philosophy, his tenuous backstory involves a supposedly unloving father (Greg Kinnear) afforded little depth. Mostly Jason just exists as a catalyst for Linda, and a catalyst of incredible convenience. Their roll in the hay suggests a disquieting (and timely, if we’re being totally upfront) avenue for the film to take, but by making Jason an ex-student as opposed to a current one, the film neatly sidesteps any truly dubious morals. Even when Jason has a kinda, sorta fling with the play’s teenaged leading lady (Lily Collins), they are only seen canoodling, no more, to avoid ethical murkiness. And so what initially starts out as an enticing mixture of “Waiting for Guffman” and “Election” gradually cedes all satirical edge. It’s spineless, not exactly of the trait of significant theatre.

Much of “The English Teacher” revolves around the ending of Jason’s play, one rife with death and depression and all-around melancholia. That, of course, won’t do for the uppity Principal (Jessica Hecht) and Vice Principal (Norbert Leo Butz) who demand a re-write. A recurring joke in “The English Teacher” involves the Vice Principal wishing they could simply stage yet another production of Thornton Wilder’s reliable “Our Town”, evidently because he assumes it’s so much less heavy than Jason’s play. Which begs the question, has he actually seen his school’s other productions of “Our Town”? The ending to the movie he’s in is a duck and dodge while the ending to “Our Town”, which always sneaks up on me, is a punch to the face.

Moore’s performance is simultaneously frazzled and strangely emboldened by the untoward detours of her life, winding tighter and tighter until it’s ready to burst, and it marks her character as readymade for Sylvia Plath only to then be awkwardly jerked into Jane Austen. It’s not that she doesn’t deserve a happy ending, she does, absolutely, but the film would have us believe that she is not only frivolously let off the hook for all transgressions, as if nothing happened, but that she finds love with a guy that, frankly, she doesn’t seem entirely keen on. A “happy ending”, it seems to say, involves turning a blind eye and making compromises that you tell yourself are what you really want. If this is what Linda really wants then, well hell, maybe she is the protagonist in her own tale of doomed romance.

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