A Jane Austen character in her own mind, Julianne Moore’s eponymous English teacher is going nowhere fast in Kingston, Pennsylvania. She grades potential suitors like she grades papers; in a montage showing her dates with various un-employeds and assholes, the movie scrawls out Moore’s comments on screen: “boring,” “arrogant,” “insane.” As narrator Fiona Shaw explains, “Her uncompromising spirit, so beloved in the classroom, doomed her to a spinster’s life.”
Uncompromising or no, she can’t be blamed for pepper-spraying an old student (Michael Angarano) who startles her at an ATM at night. He was just saying hi! It turns out this former star pupil has given up writing after failing to get his thesis play produced; Dad, a doctor (Greg Kinnear), would prefer to see him studying law anyway. Moore has an idea: Why not stage The Chrysalis—dubbed “O’Neill meets Kafka meets Spielberg” by Nathan Lane’s drama instructor—at the school? The suggestion is plausible enough (it’s exactly the kind of thing a helpful person who can’t help would say); what follows is less so. Financial constraints, the prospect of censorship, and a love triangle that evolves around the lead actress (Lily Collins) all threaten to prevent a curtain call. The moment Moore and Angarano succumb to the kind of desktop indiscretion memorably sent up in last year’s That’s My Boy, The English Teacher has officially deployed one contrivance too many.
There’s even a student who just happens to be shooting a documentary, the better to put embarrassing offstage antics on display. Moore often seems incapable of going wrong, but she’s rarely been less convincing than when put through the wringer of humiliation she’s subjected to here. (Her outsized eyewear, at least 20 years out of date, is only one example of the film overplaying her frumpiness.) Veteran TV director Craig Zisk does nothing more than keep the proceedings blandly palatable. Even the sitcom stylings might not matter if the movie were funny, but in spite of the potential for Guffman-esque comedy, The English Teacher boasts few surprises—except perhaps its message, which seems to be that selling out isn’t so bad. Chalk it up to a case of “write what you know.”