Before I thought of starting this project or studied Greg Kinnear’s Rotten Tomatoes page, I would have told you he’s an underrated actor who stars in rom coms and quirky comedies. Every Twitter user who hasn’t seen Auto Focus says the same thing. Then I started this project, researched Greg, and literally added “biopics, sports movies, war movies, religious dramas, and animated films” to my initial post as other movie genres in his portfolio. But, take heed, immersing oneself in an actor’s web page is far different than immersing oneself in that same actor’s filmography. As this project has largely been an exercise in the latter, I’ve discovered numerous surprising things about Greg. For one, he’s been in numerous psychological thrillers, including The Gift (which is excellent), Godsend (his lowest Rotten Tomatoes score) and the new Strange But True (the trailer is bonkers). As I mention in seemingly every post, I also learned that Greg loves black comedies and is exceptional therein. Matador and Nurse Betty are some of his best roles, and his directorial debut was a black comedy.
A third ‘Kinnear kibble’ I’ve learned is that Greg is a fan of the arts. He loves starring in movies about artists: he’s played on-screen actors in numerous movies, a pianist in The Last Song, a painter in As Good As It Gets, and a writer in Stuck in Love. But he’s also been in two movies (Stuck in Love and The English Teacher) explicitly about writers and in praise of the written word. These movies released the same year (2013) and both starred Lily Collins, daughter of Phil Collins (whose music may be in your heart). Both movies fell prey to the two tropes common to art-centric films: cliché pop culture references and melodramatic story arcs. Whereas Stuck in Love milked its pop culture references for all their worth (endless mention of Stephen King turned into a climatic cameo!) and layered its melodrama nicely, English Teacher did neither of these things. Its literary references fall flat (Julianne Moore, the titular character, grew up reading Little Women and teaches her students A Tale of Two Cities and Gulliver’s Travels). And after an okay build-up, the movie eschews further plot development and jams all its melodramatic moments into one scene. The trailer reveals almost the entire plot, and obviates the final twist (Greg Kinnear falls for Julianne Moore, even though she slept with his son. It’s kind of like Something’s Gotta Give, but Jack Nicholson doesn’t sleep with Diane Keaton’s daughter. Also about a writer, that movie is way better and on Netflix).
The English Teacher (2013)
Directed by Craig Zisk, the movie opens with artsy fartsy narration to introduce Julianne Moore, a Jane Austen-inspired small-town high school English teacher. At 45, her high standards means she’s single (cue montage of weird dudes she’s dated with voice over: “Her uncompromising spirit, so beloved in the classroom, doomed her to a spinster’s life”). But then she compromises. A former student, Michael Angarano, returns home after college. He studied to be a playwright at NYU and wrote a play The Chrysalis that no one wanted to produce. The play includes an abusive father and ends with a double suicide. Michael says the play is autobiographical, and that his mom is dead while his controlling dad (Greg Kinnear) now wants him to study law.
Julianne takes pity on Michael, reads his play, and loves it. The drama teacher (Nathan Lane) also loves it. Nathan and Julianne present the play to the principal who agrees to let them stage it, so long as they change its ending to something less dark. Nathan and Julianne privately agree to leave the ending unchanged and Julianne offers to pay for any over-budget set pieces. Production starts and Lily Collins is cast in the central role. Julianne simultaneously exalts the genius of Michael’s play and coddles him, shielding him from even basic criticism from a cast member. Then one evening after play practice, Julianne and Michael have sex on her desk in her classroom.
Immediately regretting this, Julianne approaches Michael the next day and tells him they cannot have a romantic relationship. But Michael, who is a deadbeat (crazy idea: maybe his play isn’t good?), a liar (more on that later), and a horny man, then starts flirting with Lily Collins. Julianne sees this and pulls Lily aside for a girl-to-girl talk where she encourages Lily to reject Michael’s advances. This obviously doesn’t work, and (soon after) Julianne discovers Lily and Michael making out. Julianne storms out, Michael confronts her in the parking lot, and a student films the confrontation on his phone (which includes mention of Julianne and Michael’s canoodling).
Then, like I said above, all the melodramatic moments drop at the same time. Julianne comes to school the next day, finds “rumors” about her circling, and recruits the principal to scold Lily for spreading them. But when the principal confronts Lily in front of the whole cast, she plays the phone video and Julianne is immediately fired. The principal also finds out the play has its original ending and Michael is pissed to discover (for the first time) that he has to change it. Michael runs after Julianne to ask why she lied to him, she maces him, gets some in her own eye, and crashes her car soon after leaving the parking lot.
Julianne wakes up in the ER where she is treated by Doctor Greg Kinnear. She learns she was mistaken about Greg; he’s not an abusive but supporting father (I mean, he did pay for his son to get an art degree from NYU). Michael lied about everything (law school was his idea and his mom is alive but divorced from Greg). But Greg is upset that Julianne A) slept with his son (20+ years her junior) and B) lied to his son about having to change the play’s ending.
At this point, the movie could go for a realistic ending where Julianne never teaches again, Michael does nothing with his life, and the play is scrapped. Instead…Nathan Lane falls ill, the principal begs Julianne to come back to direct the play, Michael likes the new ending that Julianne writes, and Greg Kinnear starts dating Julianne.
This movie was bad, but not as bad as I was expecting (a small grace). The plot was mediocre and the melodrama was bad. You can tell when melodrama is bad when character arcs are maddeningly inconsistent. So I ask, which main character was the most inconsistent? I answer with a ranking, from most to least consistent.
- (Most Consistent) Nathan Lane. All Nathans are objectively great, and he was the best part of the movie as his character was the same from beginning to end. Nathan excelled as a melodramatic, highly expressive drama teacher who was also a grifter (Julianne shelled out nearly $5,000 for his fancy set pieces).
- (Pretty Consistent) Greg Kinnear. More below, but his character arc went from rumored abusive to supporting father.
- (Inconclusive) Lily Collins. She was severely underused.
- (Very Inconsistent) Julianne Moore. Julianne’s character was forced to carry all of the melodramatic plot and essentially ping-ponged from disciplined teacher to devoted fangirl to disgraced teacher to sobbing hospital patient and back to disciplined teacher. (Other plot point: legal issues aside, why would Julianne even want to keep teaching at a school where she now has a reputation for sleeping with students?). I’d like to say Julianne has the acting range to make this movie work, but no (remember her Irish accent on 30 Rock?).
- (Trash) Michael Angarano. Truth be told, his character arc was consistent: a lying and horny deadbeat dude whose talent is squandered by his inability to handle criticism. But since the movie’s ending tried to redeem him as artistic genius while never really faulting him, this made every other character look super stupid so Michael wins worst character.
The Measured Displeasure of Doctor Greg
To the point, I liked Greg’s performance and character arc. He’s played a narcissistic, vitriolic, unsupportive dude too many times to count. The most relevant is his turn as a (TV) doctor in Nurse Betty, where his narcissism and anger resulted in him all-out screaming at and demeaning Renée Zellweger. With these metatextual references, it was easy to buy into a vision of Greg as an abusive, unsupportive, doctor dad. When the viewer (via Julianne) looks through glass doors and witnesses Greg apparently berating his son, we side with Michael.
But, since this is not actually the case, Greg plays his early scenes with a measured calm. When Julianne exits the glass doors to tell Greg off and later confronts him at the gym, he tries to defend himself and present an accurate version of Michael’s family life. But when Greg sees that Julianne tunes out everything he says, he decides to walk away. I don’t think I’ve ever seen ‘walk away’ Greg, but I quite liked it. He perfects the facial expressions and body language that says, “this is hopeless.”
When his true character and Julianne’s indiscretions emerge, Greg displays not a measured calm but a measured displeasure. As Julianne’s confessions come as his patient in a hospital bed, Greg’s professionalism requires him to keep his cool. He certainly chides Julianne, but does so with a restraint that requires just as many acting chops as did losing his cool with Renée.
In his final act, we see Greg attempt measured mingling as he woos Julianne. Greg is a master of facial expressions and bashful, flirty Greg is pretty good here. But it was hard to fully separate the quality of Greg’s acting in this final act from the resolution of his character arc. First, the town is small but there have to be other women to date. Second, he confesses to Julianne that he does have faults–he was an absent father for much of Michael’s young life. This confession seems a lame attempt to redeem Michael while walking back Greg’s goodness.
- Greg likes starring in movies highlighting artists and/or extolling art. In 2013, he was in two such movies–both melodramatic, both with Lilly Collins–but one was good (Stuck in Love) and the other was bad (The English Teacher).
- English Teacher followed titular character Julianne Moore, as she staged a play written by a former student while also sleeping with said student and briefly getting fired.
- Greg and Nathan (Lane) give excellent and mostly consistent performances that save this movie from being a total bore.
- Greg inverts his typical narcissistic trope, and excels at displaying measured calm, measured displeasure, and measured mingling.
- Next-up: It’s been 20 movies since my last project recap, which means it’s high-time for another one!
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