“I know a thing or two about good stories,” says Linda Sinclair (Julianne Moore), the schoolmarm at the center of The English Teacher, a screwball dramedy that proves largely incapable of making the same claim. At its heart, the film is about a reclusive and ostensibly proper middle-aged woman, who's bound for spinsterhood if she can't lower her guard and surpass the poor results of her good intentions. Linda teaches at a Pennsylvania high school, and everything about her life and curriculum is cut from clichéd cloth. As a little girl, she read prototypical novels like Little Women; in class, she tells her students to muse over Sydney Carton's martyrdom in A Tale of Two Cities (Death of a Salesman and The Glass Menagerie are also name-checked); and, at home, she watches Merchant-Ivory flicks while dining on salad and asparagus. Granted, this is a film that deals with high school-grade literature, but its own level of understanding of the classics feels elementary, as does its curation of reference points. The story's inciting incident involves the hometown return of Linda's former student, Jason (Michael Angarano), a struggling New York playwright whose current work, Chrysalis, can't reach its end stage (i.e., the stage). Ecstatic about the play, Linda shows it to drama teacher Carl (a campily typecast Nathan Lane), who's equally elated. “It's archetypal, and thus universal!” Carl beams. The unspeakably banal statement is expressed as an expert's insight, and, for co-screenwriters Dan and Stacy Chariton, it reads like an unintended, self-reflexive cop-out.
As Linda and Carl strive to have the high school produce the play, their efforts prompt a lot of administrative grumbling (thanks to Chrysalis's mature content, like an ending wherein everyone violently dies), and a potential compromise of artistic integrity for Jason (whom Angarano plays with great, boho naturalism). There's some obviously provocative material to plumb here, specifically the ongoing, conservative censorship of student consumption, but The English Teacher mainly uses that issue for surface nyuks, like the jittery discomfort of upright Principal Slocum (an admittedly infectious Jessica Hecht). The only true instance of daring is a perhaps foreseeable scene in Linda's classroom, where she and Jason get all Notes on a Scandal on top of her desk. All the while, Jason is also seducing the play's lead, Halle (Lily Collins), and Linda is unwittingly nurturing a less eyebrow-raising romance with Jason's dad (Greg Kinnear).
When a peer catches Jason and Linda in a revealing conversation, and his iPhone video of the chat goes viral, the on-campus reaction the following day is packed with hilarity, like when rude boys tell Linda that they too want to bend her over her desk. At this point, we've seen Moore do everything from receive Dirk Diggler's member to master the woes of the tortured housewife, and in her newer performances, her filmic history seems to race within her characters. Making Linda a barely-together mess of physical comedy and blustery facial expressions, she glares back at the boys with a look of magical disgust, as if to say, “Give me a break, you punk bitches.” Even if she's not quite challenging herself this time out, Moore gets Linda, and all her frayed, façade-busting-flaws, in a way the film does not.
The English Teacher prefers easier characterizations, such as how, all her life, Linda's nose has been in books, when it should have been out in the world, sniffing out real experiences. It also fails to believably instill her with the canonical knowledge she so claims to possess, betraying the character by making her smitten for a play that, by all evidence, sounds as boilerplate as a 10th-grade syllabus. Incidentally, this is the second recent release—after The Great Gatsby, whose overwrought, on-screen text it even shares—that aims to channel great, time-honored storytelling without being able to tell a great story.