While it’s common knowledge that Julianne Moore can do it all, it seems the one thing she’s not versed at is straightforward comedy. Sure, her parts in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia and Jay Roach’s Game Change (where she played Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin), among others, provoke laughter in the audience, but they are more in the tragicomic vein. In Craig Zisk’s The English Teacher, Moore is given a part that in the ’90s would’ve gone to someone like Meg Ryan or even Julia Roberts, and she’s far from being a success in it.
Moore plays Linda Sinclair, a high school teacher in a small town in Pennsylvania by the name of Kingston. Through a British narrator (Fiona Shaw of all people) we learn that from an early age, Linda knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up. She devoured books as a kid and was picked on by popular kids who didn’t understand that she was an intellectual.
When she finally became an English teacher, she devoted herself to her students to the point where she never developed a fulfilling personal life of her own. But this is no The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and her students are as indifferent to Ms. Sinclair’s skills as she is to the typical conventions of what being a “functional adult” is all about.
Things brighten up for Ms. Sinclair when one of her former students comes back to town. He is Jason Sherwood (Michael Angarano), one of her few students who actually loved her class and pursued a career in English by moving to New York City and attending drama school. Surprised by his presence in town, Ms. Sinclair learns that Jason’s father (Greg Kinnear) has asked him to drop out of his major and go to law school, to make some real money. She reads Jason’s play, called “The Chrysalis”, and is so moved by it that she suggests a production should be staged by the high school theater.
The play itself is a Kafkaesque tale of a daughter rebelling against her domineering stepmother and her father, that of course is nothing but a thinly disguised version of Jason’s own battle with his father. Blinded by the promise offered by her student, and perhaps wanting to live vicariously through his success, Linda even offers to pay for the production out of her pocket. Before soon, she’s become involved romantically with him, which leads to complete chaos.
The English Teacher wants to be an old fashioned tale about a woman realizing she’s much more than she thinks she is and the main problem with it, is that Moore doesn’t seem to buy into this. Her performance suffers from a syndrome similar to that suffered by Jessica Chastain on a recent stage production of The Heiress; they are just too imposing as actresses to be dowdy women who others find unattractive. This is in no way a flaw in their acting, but more in the screenplays they’re working with, which seem to think that a pair of unattractive glasses or a wig are enough to trick audiences into believing they’re their characters.
Throughout the film, Moore seems like she knows that she’s way too good for the material she’s working with, and being the fine actress she is, she does try to bring some depth to Linda, but she is given dialogues that expose her character’s neuroses without justifying them. We truly never know Linda and the more we hear her talk and the more we see her lead her life, the easier it is to dislike her and even judge her. Her character’s turns are implausible and even for a movie about a middle aged woman going through a crisis, nothing truly seems to make us actually believe this woman knows anything about herself.
Put bluntly, Moore’s Linda exists only because she’s written in a screenplay, not because the writer and the director cared to suspend our disbelief and made us believe this woman existed before we started watching the movie. The plot twists can be foretold decades before they happen and they rob the movie from the opportunity of being either a too caustic satire or a cute romantic comedy.
A deleted scene in the DVD actually adds something extra to the movie as we see Linda imagine herself as a young woman in Jason’s play. There’s an added element of fantasy, a la Ally McBeal that seems like it shouldn’t work but might’ve actually saved the film from feeling so vapid and unplanned. Other extras in the DVD include a behind the scenes featurette in which all the actors praise each other’s work as well as the director’s making us believe we just watched a much better film.