We start with a typically small town high school in Kingston, PA, with a typically rowdy student body roaming the hallowed halls. A typically proper 45-year-old English teacher is seen locking up her classroom for the day. Well, maybe not that typical because this instructor is played by Julianne Moore. The well-modulated voice of actress Fiona Shaw — straight out of a Masterpiece Theatre special — informs us that this is Linda Sinclair, a single woman of simple pleasures and literary pursuits, who has yet to meet her ideal mate. So far, so good, you say.

But don’t jump to conclusions. The semester’s not over yet. Still, The English Teacher, the debut feature by TV whiz kid director, Craig Zisk, which recently premiered at The Tribeca Film Festival, would appear to be off to a running start. Ms. Moore is the same actress who received Oscar nominations for her roles in Boogie Nights, The End of the Affair, Far from Heaven and The Hours. If that’s not enough, Mr. Zisk has executively produced and directed more than 50 television series, including Nurse Jackie, The Office and Parks and Recreation and received Emmy nominations for The Larry Sanders Show and Weeds. So what’s the problem?

Let’s start with the story by Dan and Stacy Chariton. On the particular school day in question, Miss Sinclair encounters a strange young man approaching her at the ATM booth. Not wanting to take any chances, she douses him with pepper spray. Only then does she discover he’s her former star pupil, Jason Sherman, who happens to have returned home after suffering the trials and tribulations of a failed playwriting career in New York City. Not wanting to further dampen his aspirations, she offers to read his play. Of course, it’s right up there with Shakespeare, and she offers to produce it at her school. The administration reluctantly agrees, spoon fed as they are on Our Town. The drama teacher, played by Nathan Lane (not a bad choice) climbs aboard, and surprise of surprises, so does our young man, pinioning teacher Sinclair to the desk in record time. We haven’t seen such passion on the big screen since Olive Oyl made eyes at Popeye. Of course, there’s a young ingénue in the script and Jason climbs aboard her as well. Ms. Sinclair isn’t too happy about this arrangement but she continues to throw her wages willy-nilly into the production. Evidently the screenwriters didn’t do too much research on the current teachers’ salaries in Pennsylvania or elsewhere in the country.

Did I mention Jason’s father? He’s less than happy about his son’s theatrical aspirations. He would be far happier to see him go into the legal profession, and who can blame him? But Miss Sinclair has other ideas for Jason and as the father, played very sincerely by Greg Kinnear, belongs to the same health club as our teacher, she not only manages to advise him on his wrong decisions as a father but also lets him know she has slept with his son. Remember, this is supposed to be a romantic comedy, so the play has to be a success and Jason’s father has to discover our English teacher is really the intelligent, romantic woman he has been searching for all along. It is Julianne Moore, don’t forget. And that’s all folks.

There’s no question that talent can go a long way in rectifying a misguided script. And there’s no question that there was a considerable intelligence of intent at work here. Michael Angarano as the young playwright is a bumbling, likable enough actor, but seems like a fish out of water in his scenes with Ms. Moore. One rather amusing interlude allows drama teacher Lane to break out in unadulterated song over his fledgling production, and we are treated to several bars from Steven Sondheim’s “Putting it Together” from Sunday in the Park with George. The young cast and crew are seen in a multiple-screen sequence rehearsing Sherman’s efforts at immortality.

For support, Lily Collins as the willing ingénue — all smoldering eyes and insistent pouts — is reminiscent of a very young and nubile Elizabeth Taylor, while Norbert Leo Butz is more than sufficiently dense as the principal who has his head in the sand about the finer points of serious drama.

As for Ms. Moore, she has had no problem in a stellar career shedding clothes and propriety if the script called for it. Her performance in Boogie Nights as a porn star was a brilliantly sensitive portrayal and just recently, her portrayal of a lesbian mother in The Kids Are Alright might have raised a few eyebrows but certainly didn’t leave any doubt about her ability to play against the norm with subtlety and good humor. Here, to accept her English teacher performance as it is written, stretches our belief almost to the breaking point. The simple fact is that Ms. Moore is just too intelligent for the part, no matter how tongue-in-cheek the director intended it to be.

Zisk gives us a happy ending, and he can’t be faulted for that. His ambition to take the next step into the feature film universe is understandable. Direction and performances aside, there’s no substitute for a solid, believable script and we can only hope his next effort will show that his TV success isn’t an end in itself.

I’m afraid this reviewer rates The English Teacher a C+ on her report card.

Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars

“The English Teacher” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 26.

Featured image: (Left to right) Michael Angarano and Julianne Moore in “The English Teacher.” Photo Courtesy of: The Tribeca Film Festival.

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