Judge Gordon Sullivan says literature is important—for movie adaptations.
Refuse to live life by the book.
I once had an English professor who claimed that he was a good teacher not because he cared about his students (he only cared about a few), but because he cared about literature. His students would come and go, he would give them more or less insight into literature (those insights as dependent on the students as the teacher), but his favorite authors would remain. In a world of No Child Left Behind and helicopter parenting, it's a bold assertion to make: literature is more important than students of literature. Though that's the extreme version of a certain kind of thinking, it's not that radical—lots of teachers at least begin to teach because they love their subject, not because they care about their pupils. One such character is spinsterish Linda Sinclair, The English Teacher, but unlike most teachers, her love of romantic literature leads her astray. It's a clever idea for a romantic dramedy, but shifts in tone keep it from hitting as hard as it could.
Facts of the Case
Linda Sinclair (Julianne Moore, Boogie Nights) teaches English in high school. She's never married, can't find a decent guy, and spends most of her time thinking about literature. Her life, however, is turned upside down when a former student (Michael Angarano, Red State) turns back up in their small town of Kingston, Pennsylvania. This student, Jason, tried to make it big in New York City with a play, a play he wants his hero English teacher to read. She does, and falls in love with it, insisting that the play be put on by the school's drama department (led by Nathan Lane, The Birdcage). When Linda falls for more than Jason's play, her life begins to change dramatically.
The English Teacher starts out with a lot of promise. An opening montage gives us a capsule history of our heroine, Linda Sinclair, as she navigates her life with the aid of literature. It cultivated in her a romantic spirit, one at odds with the men we see her try to connect with. Despite the emphatically American setting, the voiceover is performed with an English accent (by an Irish actress, Fiona Shaw, or Petuna Dursley in the world of Harry Potter), giving the whole affair just a touch of Jane Austen. This, I thought, could be just the ticket.
However, after that opening montage, the voiceover disappears until the end, and what we're left with is a film that can't decide what it wants to be. On the one hand, we're set up to sympathize with Linda. Yes, she's a bit of a spinster, but she's so charming about it that we forgive her the blandness of the montage because we know her passion for literature burns hot within. However, as the film goes on, the tone and events suggest that we're not really supposed to root for Linda quite so one-sidedly. That in itself isn't a problem—it's possible for comedic characters to inspire ambivalence—but the fact that Linda starts out as a satiric extreme means that any criticism levied at her, any bad behavior she engages in, hits a straw-man target. Taking down a straw man (or woman, in this case) just isn't as funny. The film might have recovered by poking fun at the stereotype rather than Linda herself, but it never quite gets there. Thus, The English Teacher is neither a gently funny portrait of literary passion gone awry nor a hard-hitting drama about finding romance in middle age. As neither fish nor fowl, the film feels like a wasted opportunity.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One can't blame the cast. Julianne Moore is simply perfect as Linda. She tones down her often-glamorous looks to give us a Linda who feels like a middle-aged woman. The fact that we know it's Julianne Moore, someone known for her beauty, gives her character a sense of tragic destiny, as if she's sacrificed the gifts of her beauty on the altar of the word. Michael Angarano is her perfect foil. He's young and fresh-faced enough to make him believable as a young hopeful who's had his dreams dashed. He's charming, and we can see why Linda would fall for him, even if he is a bit of a screw-up. Nathan Lane portrays a variation the flamboyant character he's perfected elsewhere, but in this context it's charming rather than tired. Others, like Greg Kinnear and Lily Collins, round out the cast with familiar faces.
There isn't much to complain about with The English Teacher (Blu-ray), either. The 2.40:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is generally solid. Nothing about the look stands out—this isn't a visually inventive film, and while detail, colors, and skin tones all look fine, nothing about them jumps out and says, "Look at me!" Compression errors and other digital problems don't rob the film of anything. Overall it's a fine, if unmemorable, transfer. The DTS-HD 5.1 track serves the film well. This isn't a sonically rich film, but this track focuses on the meat-and-potatoes: dialogue. It's crystal clear, well-balanced, and perfectly audible. Not a disc to test out your new home theater with, but The English Teacher looks and sounds fine.
Extras start with a 30-minute making-of that's EPK-style. So we get behind-the-scenes footage, interviews with the principals, and clips from the film. Because of the featurette's length, we actually end up getting some decent insight into the film, its characters, and the production. We also get a deleted scene, the film's theatrical trailer, and a DVD copy of the film.
The English Teacher (Blu-ray) isn't an awful way to spend an evening's rental, especially with this solid release. With solid performances and a bit of whimsy, there's much to admire here. However, because of some of the tonal shifts in the treatment of the material, it can feel a bit like a promise unfulfilled.
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