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‘The English Teacher’ Review: Agile Performances Elevate This Pleasant Comedy

Julianne Moore stars as an English teacher who decides to mount a play — and romance the playwright

“Pleasant” is one of those words that English teachers and editors always put on their verboten lists for aspiring writers as being too vague and namby-pamby.

But pleasant is the perfect word with which to describe “The English Teacher,” an ingratiating little comedy that aims to please and succeeds at its modest goal.

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The movie’s heroine is Linda Sinclair (Julianne Moore), a 40something English teacher at a high school in Kingston, Pa., a suburban town in northwest Pennsylvania. A single woman, she spends her days in the classroom and her nights either out on what invariably turn out to be lousy dates — she mentally grades each of her hapless suitors — or happily at home reading Jane Austen while sipping a glass of wine.

Jason Sherwood (Michael Angarano), a former student, returns to town from New York after failing to launch himself as a playwright following college. He is now contemplating enrolling in law school at the behest of his domineering father (Greg Kinnear), widowed doctor.

Linda reads Jason’s play and decides to mount it (and, ahem, later him) at the high school, a decision that leads to complications and trouble. Productions costs rise and Linda finds herself writing personal checks to cover the budget gaps, the playwright objects to textural cuts the principal insists upon, and the student actors (including Lily Collins) act out — and not just on stage.

The question whether this seemingly simple high school production (the few scenes we see make the play seem like pretentious hogwash) will ever open becomes as fraught as if it were a multi-million dollar Broadway extravaganza, as least for those involved.

“English Teacher” is all in good fun, helped enormously by agile performances from the major cast members. Neither they nor first-time features director Craig Zisk, a veteran of such TV shows as "Parks and Recreation" and "Smash," push too hard or seek to give excessive weight or meaning to the slender but competently constructed screenplay by Dan and Stacy Chariton (a married duo).

Moore imbues her English teacher with just the right mix of sincere commitment and self-delusion. Angarano nails the moral slipperiness of a young man still trying to define himself, and Kinnear brings a relaxed charm to his not-so-nasty-after-all dad.

The movie also boasts a strong supporting cast, with real life Broadway stalwarts Nathan Lane, Jessica Hecht and Norbert Leo Butz showing up to humorous effect as, respectively, the high school’s self-dramatizing drama teacher, principal and vice-principal.

“English Teacher,” which has been available on video on demand since mid-April, opens in Los Angeles on May 17 and in New York on May 24