Graded on a curve, “The English Teacher” is an affable if familiar high-school comedy populated by bright pupils, badly behaved teachers and amateur theatricals. Clearly inspired by — but never as inspired as — the likes of “Election,” “Rushmore” and “Glee,” this feature directing debut for smallscreen vet Craig Zisk (“Weeds,” “The Larry Sanders Show”) benefits from a brisk pace, witty banter and engaging performances, yet still fades from memory faster than a final exam on the first day of summer vacation. A world premiere at Tribeca, which is also partnering with Cinedigm on the pic’s VOD and theatrical distribution, “Teacher” should perform best with the study-from-home crowd.
In a variation on the lovelorn widow she plays in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Sundance hit “Don Jon,” the always resourceful Moore here stars as Linda Sinclair, a 45-year-old spinster who grades potential suitors with the same unforgiving red pen she brings to her students’ assignments (illustrated in a mildly amusing bad-first-date montage). One night, Linda bumps into (and accidentally pepper-sprays) Jason (Michael Angarano), a former student who has recently returned to their sleepy Pennsylvania hamlet after graduating from NYU and trying unsuccessfully to get a play produced on the New York stage.
When Linda subsequently reads Jason’s play, a dark family drama titled “The Chrysalis,” she proclaims it a masterpiece and resolves that it must be produced as the school’s annual student theatrical, a view soon shared by drama teacher Carl (Nathan Lane), who praises the play as “O’Neill meets Kafka meets Spielberg” and says he will simply go postal if forced to oversee one more staging of school perennial “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Markedly less persuaded are fussbudget principal Jessica Hecht and vice principal Norbert Leo Butz (among the many Broadway regulars who populate the cast). That double suicide at the end is a particular deal breaker.
Nor is the playwright himself initially convinced by the proposition, despite Linda’s repeated plea that she can’t bear the thought of him squandering his talent by going to law school.
You can just about set your watch by the moment at which this teacher-student relationship turns May-December — and then, a bit later, goes all jilted and jealous, after Jason takes an offstage interest in the production’s beautiful leading lady (Lily Collins). Meanwhile, Linda becomes increasingly convinced that she is the only one who can save Jason from his domineering father (Greg Kinnear), whom she imagines to be the model for “The Chrysalis’” abusive paterfamilias. Zisk puts these developments across in serviceable sitcom fashion, with lots of closeups, busy strings on the soundtrack and a pervasive, plasticine backlot sheen. There’s a more daring movie lurking somewhere inside “The English Teacher,” about the ways in which teachers can sometimes live vicariously through their students, and how a standout pupil may become a form of self-validation — a subject the pic ultimately teases without ever really biting into.
Husband-and-wife screenwriters Dan and Stacy Chariton leaven the script with a lot of sly insider references for the theater crowd, from Carl’s reminiscence of a long-ago audition for Stephen Sondheim to a production of “Oklahoma!” he once supposedly directed in the Japanese Noh style. But as with a lot of movies about the making of plays or movies, we never see enough of “The Chrysalis” itself to make heads or tails of it; pic expects viewers to take it for granted that Jason really is a prodigy, though things might have been a good deal more interesting if he weren’t, his mediocre play inflated to genius level by those who want it to be.
Still, the pic’s strongest and funniest scenes are those devoted to the rehearsal process, especially as Carl’s megalomania sends the budget soaring, and the backstage hijinks threaten to usurp the onstage drama, a la Michael Frayn’s classic “Noises Off.” Lane is so typecast here he could probably play the role in a deep cryogenic sleep, though it’s no less of a delight to watch him do it. The other actors acquit themselves well in roles that don’t always allow for much nuanced interpretation.