Nimble cast enlivens this 'English' assignment

05:00 AM, May 17, 2013

Michael Angarano and Julianne Moore appear in a scene from the motion picture 'The English Teacher.' Nicole Rivelli, Cinedigm/


Written By by Claudia Puig, USA TODAY

The title character in the lightly comic The English Teacher is a 45-year-old single woman whose zealous devotion to her job precludes nearly everything else.

She reads Jane Austen and swoons, but there’s no real-life romance in her life. An exacting person, Linda Sinclair (Julianne Moore) goes on a series of first dates and mentally grades her suitors: F for the narcissist who doesn’t pay for dinner, C for having a bad mustache.

Fortunately, the marks are above average for this big-screen debut (* * * out of four; rated R; opens Friday in select cities) of director Craig Zisk, best-known as executive producer of TV series such as Weeds and The Larry Sanders Show.

The film is set in a suburban Pennsylvania high school, where Linda’s students respond to her enthusiastic love of good writing. One of them, Jason Sherwood (Michael Angarano), even went on to NYU and wrote a play.

Initially, Linda’s reunion with Jason is awkward as he approaches her in a hoodie near an ATM, and she pepper-sprays him. Mortified when she sees who he is, they talk and she learns he’s a disillusioned playwright who can’t find a producer. She offers to read his work — it’s the least she can do, after mistaking him for a mugger.

Next we see Linda on her couch, weeping as she reads the play. She pronounces it a masterpiece, and drama teacher Carl Kapinas (Nathan Lane) agrees. Lane has the movie’s best lines, including his assessment of the play as “O’Neill meets Kafka meets Spielberg.” (The pronunciation of Carl’s last name also is a source of amusement.)

This is a brisk comedy, with some formulaic moments made better by a top-notch cast that also includes Greg Kinnear as Jason’s father, and quirkily funny Jessica Hecht as the principal who opposes the play because of its tragic ending.

Linda and Carl are determined to mount a production, but things grow strained as Linda and Jason inevitably grow close. She goes from being a committed and upright teacher to displaying some unlikely behavior in very little time.

But the play’s the thing, Linda says a few times. And, like Shakespeare, she means it.

While often quite funny, Teacher might have been edgier and less like a sitcom if it had taken fewer predictable turns in the last half. Still, writers Dan and Stacy Chariton are responsible for some clever banter, particularly the theater references given to Lane, who nails them.

What we see of the play seems faintly ridiculous, neither worthy of tears or chuckles. Still, the rehearsals are a hoot, especially Carl’s frustrated desire to make it a Broadway-style epic, which Linda foolishly bankrolls after the school resists.

The idea of teachers living vicariously through their students’ accomplishments is intriguingly hinted at, but not explored. And there is a turn we see coming long before she does — a romance with a man she thought she despised.

Lane steals the show, which is no small feat when someone of the caliber of Moore is the star. The English Teacher is an appealing tale that’s worth seeing just for his performance.