Linda Sinclair (Julianne Moore) is perfectly comfortable with her quiet life as a high school English teacher—living alone and filling her spare time with reading novels and screaming at telemarketers on the phone. (Or so the trite and too on-the-nose narrator would have us believe.) But, when former student Jason Sherwood (Michael Angarano) returns to town after failing to make it as a Broadway playwright, Linda starts to become more active in her own life. She reads Jason’s play The Chrysalis and loves it (weird moth characters and all). She loves it so much that she becomes determined to mount a high school production of it (despite its decidedly adult and Ibsen-like tone). Yet Linda gets carried away with her passion for the project and her need to rekindle Jason’s aims as a writer.
To help direct the play, Linda enlists the school drama teacher Carl (Nathan Lane). His enthusiasm for the play matches her fervor, and they are able to convince the easy-mannered principal (Jessica Hecht) and the outspoken vice principal (Norbert Leo Butz) to allow the play’s production—with a few concessions, of course. Most notably, the dark ending, in which both the heroine and her father commit suicide, must be removed. Linda agrees to the changes while conspiring with Carl to keep the ending in tact. She then forces Jason to sign the contract for the play’s rights (and, unbeknownst to him, changes) as her Machiavellian need to produce the play increases.
After a sudden (and steamy) dalliance between Linda and Jason occurs, things begin to go horribly wrong for Linda. She isolates those around her with lies and interferes with Jason’s family life via his father Tom (Greg Kinnear). The hilarity of the first half of the film turns bittersweet, as Linda must own up to her actions. But it seems no amount of reading can have prepared her for these consequences.
In Julianne Moore’s very capable hands, Linda becomes a very likable, yet tragic, heroine. Moore’s earnestness prevents us from pitying the character in a cloying way, allowing us to revel in her complexities instead. (And how often do you see an older female character so confident and comfortable in their singledom?) Nathan Lane’s exuberance is perfectly suited for Carl, and his depth as an actor hinders Carl from becoming a flat caricature. (Sadly, the same can’t be said for Hecht and Butz, but their flat caricatures are more necessary evils and thus forgivable.) Kinnear’s affable nature makes it rightfully difficult to believe him to be the monster that Jason depicts him as in his play—thus making Linda’s aggression towards him that much more entertaining. And unkempt Angarano does an admirable job of playing up his virility while still coming off as a likable (and slightly despicable) character.
Together this cast of skilled actors manages to keep the film alive and entertaining. This is thanks in no small part to the talented and prolific TV director Craig Zisk (Nurse Jackie, Parks and Recreation, Weeds, and many, many more). The English Teacher is his first feature film, and it is great to see his efforts on a cinematic scale.
Also keeping the film entertaining are screenwriters Dan Chariton and Stacy Chariton. Their brisk plotting allows the story to move at an enjoyable pace (without feeling rushed); and they’ve littered the script with literary references worthy of any skilled English teacher. Linda delivers allusions to Shakespeare and Goethe at the drop of a hat. Carl references various playwrights in an amusingly offhand (yet completely apt) manner. Although he does take Sondheim very seriously, even going so far as to briefly serenade the cast and crew with a rendition of “Putting It Together” in an inspired montage sequence.
Although The English Teacher may be riddled with too many in-jokes for a casual observer, the energy of the cast and story will easily sustain your interested in the film. Linda’s story feels fresh and new, even if the heavy-handedness of the ending ruins much of that mood. However, the film remains perfectly delightful and amusing.