Having recognized that mainstream Hollywood holds few options for her beyond roles as mothers and/or cougars, Julianne Moore has established primary residence within the independent film world in recent years, where the range of characters is supposedly broader. For example, Moore's latest indie features The English Teacher and What Maisie Knew -- both of which have already opened in limited release in select markets and expand wider today -- cast her as... um, a cougar and a mother respectively. So much for range, I guess.
Let's start with the lesser of the two movies, just to get it out of the way. That would be The English Teacher, a strained attempt to translate the comic punch of Alexander Payne's brilliant send-up of high-school politics, Election, into the realm of an even more tension-fraught extracurricular activity: drama club. Dan and Stacy Chariton's script replaces Matthew Broderick's bumbling civics instructor with Moore's buttoned-up, severely-single English teacher, Linda Sinclair, a longtime fixture at a nondescript suburban education factory. Having mostly given up on human love for the love of books, Linda finds herself jolted out of her complacency by the unexpected return of one her star pupils, Jason Sherwood (Michael Angarano), who went off to New York to be a famous playwright but came home a prematurely cynical old man with a single, much-rejected script to his name. His teacher reads the play and instantly falls in love with it, to the point where she arranges to have it be that year's big student theater production under the guidance of flamboyant director Carl Kapinas (Nathan Lane). In the process of mounting Jason's play, though, she and her ex-pupil also... well, mount each other -- a momentary fling that causes all kinds of predictable complications.
And "predictable" pretty much sums up the experience of watching The English Teacher, which plays like a super-sized episode of one of the safe, generic sitcoms that longtime TV director Craig Zisk (making his feature debut here) has helmed in the past. Where Election wasn't afraid to make its characters unlikable, these folks are forever explaining away and apologizing for their less-than-noble actions as if they're directly appealing to the audience not to hate them -- thus killing much of the film's attempts at humor. As her grating guest star role on 30 Rock indicated, comedy has never been Moore's strong suit and she seems particularly adrift here, playing Linda as a series of nervous tics that she hopes the audience will find funny and endearing. In the end, though, the most hilarious thing about the movie is the idea that we're supposed to take Jason's play seriously when the brief glimpses we're treated to make it resemble a horrendous mash-up between kitchen sink melodrama and Z-grade Kafka. Honestly, it's unclear what Zisk and the screenwriters thought the point of this story was supposed to be. Don't screw your English teacher? Reading is fundamental... but hooking up is a lot more fun? High school theater needs more Kafka wannabes? Given the movie's general confusion about its motives and characters, the answer is probably "All of the above."
I'm happy to say that What Maisie Knew is a far more confident and focused feature, one that understands its story and finds an artful way to tell it. Adapted and updated from a 19th century novel by Henry James, the film strives to present a child's-eye view of divorce from the perspective of its titular moppet (played by newcomer Onata Aprile, whose ultra-wide peepers seem to take up half her face) whose musician mother (Moore) and gadfly father (Steve Coogan) are going through the final throes of their relationship. The collapse is depicted in miniature: the noise of a raging argument echoing from the other room, her dad pounding on the door because Mom has changed the locks, Maisie going over to her father's new apartment, where her former nanny (Joanna Vanderham) -- and his new lover -- is waiting for her. At first, Maisie is the prize possession that her parents fight over, with her mother going so far as to marry a random bartender (Alexander Skarsgård) to ensure that her newly re-married partner doesn't get sole custody. In time, though, the child takes a backseat to their other concerns --work, money, freedom. They forget who is supposed pick Maisie up at school; they pawn her off on their spouses/unpaid babysitters so they can hit the town that night; they take long trips out of town without making the proper arrangements for the girl's care. And while Maisie's youthful enthusiasm blunts the impact of this extreme neglect for a time, one can see her growing self-awareness at just how little she appears to matter to the people who are supposed to love her the most.
The major limitation of the approach the directors have taken with What Maisie Knew is that Maisie herself becomes a pitiable object to whom increasingly bad things happen rather than an active participant in her own story. And while that's clearly an integral part of the movie's story, it does mean that our attention is constantly diverted to whatever's happening around Maisie rather than the girl herself. (Compare that to such through-the-eyes-of-a-child movies like The 400 Blows and last year's Beasts of the Southern Wild, which treat their youthful heroes as fully realized characters, not just props.) Still, McGehee and Siegel -- as well as the adult cast -- are to be commended for keeping the film's depiction of marital strife from falling into melodrama and goopy sentimentality. Moore and Coogan are both quite good here, ably portraying two selfish people who on some level recognize the harm their behavior is causing their daughter and respond to their guilt by pushing her further away. This may be another Mom role for Moore, but she's the kind of Mom who is a challenge -- rather than an obligation -- for a talented actress to play.
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