The line between "cute" and "cutesy" is violated, repeatedly, in the sometimes funny, often cloying comedy "The English Teacher." We're treated to the rare talents of Julianne Moore in a gently predictable "dark" comedy sprinkled with the most adorably heavy-handed flourishes.
Start with the narration (by oh- so-British Fiona Shaw). We're told Linda Sinclair is an unmarried 45-year-old small-town Pennsylvania high school teacher with "no prospects" but a "life's purpose -- igniting the flames of literary passion in young minds."
Linda teaches and grades kids. And when she dates, she "grades" them too, her red marker jotting judgments all over the screen.
Then a star pupil (Michael Angarano) returns to town, an NYU playwriting graduate with a play no one will produce, resigned to do as his father (Greg Kinnear) wants and go to law school. Linda reads the play, weeps and resolves to keep Jason in the literary world. She enlists the school's drama teacher (Nathan Lane).
Lane's Mr. Kapinas has become "an artistic zombie," doing endless productions of "Our Town" and "The Importance of Being Earnest." They'll do this "transformative" show -- an edgy piece with violence and death in it -- at school. Jason will rediscover his voice and his sense of purpose. Mr. Kapanis will renew his love of the theater. And Linda? Her life's work will be vindicated.
What's fun here is the cast, with Moore playing a frugal straight-arrow who does one thing after another that breaks character. But the downward spiral of the play's production, Linda's mistakes and the growing evidence of Jason's immaturity and unprofessionalism is all very predictable. That sense that it's all preordained mutes the film's potential big laughs. As an English teacher might put it, they aimed (and missed) at light comedy when they should have reached for farce.
PLOT An unmarried 40-something teacher in small-town Pennsylvania steps out of her comfort zone to help a former star pupil stage his play before giving up his writing career.
RATED R (language and some sexual content)
BOTTOM LINE Doesn't quite make the grade.