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Teaching Mrs. Tingle

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Teaching Mrs. Tingle

Starring: Katie Holmes, Helen Mirren
Director: Kevin Williamson
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 96 Minutes
Release Date: August 1999
Genre: Horror

*Also starring: Marisa Coughlan, Lesley Ann Warren, Vivica Fox, Michael McKean, Liz Stauber, Jeffrey Tambor

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

If Karl Marx were alive today, he'd have a ball writing up the American school system. He would surely compare the power relationships there with those in the factories and in the offices. While on the surface, the students and teachers are working together toward a common goal, not far beneath the thin veneer of civilization lies a darker truth. Teachers and their students are engaged in a class struggle with the former--despite having to take a lot of guff the year 'round-- emerging as the ruling class while the young people behind their cramped desks suffer the often arbitrary decisions of their overlords. Given the natural rebelliousness of adolescents-- their general dislike of being told what to do--you cannot expect this relationship between unequals to be a peaceful one.

By taking this point to an extreme, caricaturing both one small group of students as they play a deadly metaphoric chess game with a particularly malicious teacher, director Kevin Williamson should be able to engage his mostly teen and 20-something audience in quite a show. The trouble is that the very target audience for this scripter of large box office successes "Scream" and "I Know What You Did Last Summer" is less likely to appreciate the nuances of Williamson's directorial debut. Nor are some adult critics. Kirk Honeycutt, reviewing for The Hollywood Reporter, states that "there is no subtle psychology to this performance; Mrs. Tingle is pure evil." Some reviews that came over the 'net, particularly on Harry Knowles's youth-dominated "Ain't It Cool" website, have complained that "nothing happens." Silly.

Think again. True enough, Mrs. Tingle is more Miss Jean Brodie than she is Our Miss Brooks. But in our present time of inflated grades, insipid advice such as "You can be anything you want to be if only you apply yourself," and a general refusal of so many teachers in secondary schools and even colleges to assign more than ten minutes' homework a night, Tingle's attitude represents a stinging antidote to the country's anodyne educational philosophy. In fact, dare I say that she is the kind of teacher that all should experience at least two or three times in their high-school lives. Despite her barbs, her off-the-wall sarcasm to students in the presence of their classmates, she challenges her charges to work their butts off even if what they produce is met with mediocre grades. How many educators can get the sorts of projects from their pupils that Tingle gets in her history class? Let's put to rest the major criticism made so far of the movie: that the title character is so evil, so totally without scruples, that there is no way we can believe such a person can remain in her position for twenty years.

This bring us to the second major criticism--again made by the young set for whom the film was made. That nothing happens. This is the sort of remark that might be made by a person who knows little about chess, who watches a riveting match between Fisher and Spassky, and concludes, "What's the big deal? Just two boring people staring at a board as though the squares were spinning scenes from a Spielberg movie, and then moving a small plastic figure an inch or two." "Teaching Mrs. Tingle" does possess a reasonable degree of physical action but more important is the psychological cat- and-mouse game played between a teacher and three students who are obviously outmatched. Had the students gagged their enemy, we'd have no story. The narrative's key strength is in the biting wit, the venomous observations, the jousting match between three high-school seniors who have little more than physical force to overcome their captive and a woman of experience who uses her cleverness to outwit them.

But we get ahead of ourselves. "Teaching Mrs. Tingle" opens on a well-written classroom scene of the sort we tend to see in films investigating the goings-on behind closed doors. While one student after another presents the final project for the history class of Eve Tingle (Helen Mirren), he or she becomes the object of gratuitous, lacerating comments. When Leigh Ann Watson (Katie Holmes from Williamson's "Dawson's Creek"), eager to finish her high-school career as valedictorian thereby to capture a scholarship that could get her out of her small town, presents a knockout album of memorabilia from the Salem Witch Trials, she is put down most unfairly by the teacher for trying to make women always victims. When the more cynical Luke (Barry Watson) simply plunks a stone on teacher's desk and announces "Plymouth Rock," he is verbally lashed by Mrs. Tingle as the kid who will become an abysmal failure like his father--whom she had taught 20 years earlier. Later, Tingle catches Leigh Ann with a planted copy of her final exam in her pack--reminiscent of a similar incident that ruined a vacation in Thailand for "Brokedown Palace"'s Alice. She intends to report the innocent girl to the principal. When Leigh Ann, Luke, and Leigh Ann's best friend Jo Lynn (Marisa Coughlan) show up at Tingle's home to try to talk her out of making the report, Tingle makes some predictably biting remarks which leads to a fracas in which the teacher is knocked out and tied to her bed by the trio. As the youngsters take turn guarding their fearless captive, Mrs. Tingle uses her acumen, her cleverness, her very knowledge of life's bitterness to play the kids off against one another. The repartee--which forms the major segment of the story--is the very verbal game that might turn off a callow crowd of Williamson's constituency. As Tingle describes the years she has spent in this insufferable town and characterizes her former husband, we in the audience are likely to feel more sympathetic toward her, even if we discount a good deal of her story as invention. In the midst of the give and take between teacher and students, Williamson tosses in a moderately humorous episode involving a visit by the balding school coach (Jeffrey Tambor) who is uncharacteristically nicknamed Spanky by the unfortunate history teacher whom he is courting.

As a whole, the narrative is not what anyone could call riveting. The cutesy performance of Tingle's cute dog, a Brussels Griffon similar to the pooch in "As Good As It Gets," is resorted to, a technique that in many a movie is a sign of a director's desperation. Helen Mirren is the ingredient that has this movie soaring above Williamson's other efforts, "Scream, "Scream 2" and "I Know What You Did Last Summer." The 53-year-old actress, known to connoisseurs of the theater for her roles on the British stage as Cleopatra at the Old Vic and to a broader audience for her capacity as policewoman in the TV series "Prime Suspect," is so dazzling that she single- handedly makes this a film that should be seen by adults as well as adolescents. Simply casting her opposite such decent but green actors as the adorable Katie Holmes and the bland Barry Watson throws into bold relief the difference between a seasoned performer and inexperienced neophytes. "Teaching Mrs. Tingle" ends on an absurd note (as you'd expect of any movie whose concluding lines include "I'm calling the police"). But with a watchable story and a dazzling appearance by Ms. Mirren, "Tingle" is a movie to which attention must be paid.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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