There may be a decent comedy hiding somewhere inside “The English Teacher.” Lord knows it’s got the right cast.
But the feature debut of TV veteran Craig Zisk (“Weeds,” “United States of Tara,” “Nip/Tuck,” “Parks and Recreation”) is a tepid thing. It’s almost as if Zisk wasn’t sure whether he was making a comedy or something else entirely.
The setup sounds promising. Forty-something high school English teacher Linda Sinclair (Julianne Moore) is a spinster whose attempts at finding a decent man have not been fruitful. So she throws herself into being the best teacher she can be — inspiring, available, encouraging.
Then she runs into one of her former students, Jason Sherwood (Michael Angarano), back in his podunk Pennsylvania town after four years of university and two years of trying to break into Broadway as a playwright.
Linda is frustrated that her former star pupil hasn’t made it big. She asks to read his magnum opus — which appears to be a mannered, really dreadful allegorical psycho drama about children and parents that is part Maeterlinck’s “The Blue Bird,” part adolescent whine-fest. It ends with the murder and suicide of the two main characters.
Linda is deeply moved. So moved that she proposes that the high school chuck its planned production of “Our Town” and mount Jason’s play instead.
In a bit of perfect casting, Nathan Lane plays the school’s drama teacher, Karl Kapinas, who is beside himself with the thought of being the first director to get his hands on a masterpiece.
And to make matters even more complicated, Linda and her former student fall into each other’s arms and have sex on her classroom desk.
“The English Teacher” sounds as if it could be a sort of melding of Alexander Payne’s “Election” and Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway,” offering a satiric overview of theatrical “types” and the artistic gullibility of the young and the loveless.
But it never takes off. The screenplay by Dan and Stacy Chariton is painfully literal-minded. It dishes potentially comic situations, then fails to deliver any sort of payoff.
And they make some big mistakes. Like having actress Fiona Shaw provide narration. Question: Was that always in the script or was it added at the last minute in an attempt to right a sinking ship?
And there’s a ghastly dating montage in which Linda evaluates her dates as if they were essays turned in by not-particularly-bright students. You even see her thoughts materializing as comments scribbled on the screen around the poor boors.
The performers are solid enough — I especially liked Greg Kinnear as Jason’s M.D. dad, who initially seems like some sort of parental tyrant (he was the inspiration for all the angst in Jason’s play) but who is revealed to be a decent, caring father with a real loser of a kid.
But “The English Teacher” never takes off. It’s like the lecturer you hope will be great and ends up boring the pants off you.