The movie started with some interesting narration by writer/professor Ted Swenson (Stanley Tucci), but I was worried. So many films have similar themes [at certain points, I was thinking about Wonder Boys, Oleanna, Play Misty for Me, While We’re Young, Election]. And although the story was predictable, my wife and I never lost interest and really enjoyed the film.
Swenson had written a popular novel years ago, but is now teaching creative writing at Euston College. His life has gone stale. He has writer’s block, and his students don’t motivate him. But hey…he’s got a steady paycheck, health insurance, and a happy marriage. His wife (Kyra Sedgwick) is always smiling, gardening, making him dinner, and even trying to be the peacemaker for the volatile relationship with his daughter (Colby Minifie).
A student named Angela Argo (Addison Timlin) seems to chime in with different viewpoints from the other classmates, and Swenson is intrigued. Once he starts reading the novel she’s working on, he begins to learn more about her. One of his colleagues (Janeane Garofalo), talks about how weird she is, and about a book of semi-erotic poetry she donated to the library. When he starts reading about an affair she had with a high school teacher, it’s either going to be a red flag for him, or perhaps…a green flag.
Angela shares some personal stories that resonate with Swenson, who also had problems with his family growing up. They bond, and talk about their favorite authors (it helps that he’s one of hers). The relationship is also helped along by the fact that Swenson has grown so tired of his pretentious colleagues and their boring dinner party conversations.
In Whiplash, the music teacher was so determined to find, and create, a musical prodigy. Even if that meant verbally abusing all his students. Swenson doesn’t know he’s looking for somebody that will write the next great American novel. He’s just finally shaken out of his mundane life by this young writer.
The movie couldn’t come at a better time. When everyone is talking about sexual harassment, and the Oscars just had to deal with Kobe Bryant winning an Oscar and Ryan Seacrest being at the red carpet…it makes this more fascinating to watch now. It’s based on Francine Prose’s 2000 novel Blue Angel, which borrows a bit from the 1930 classic Josef von Sternberg film The Blue Angel (Marlene Dietrich). Writer/director Richard Levine, best known for Nip/Tuck, does a wonderful job with the pacing of this. It combines comedy and drama, and feels authentic. And the fall colors on the college campus are captured beautifully.
The chemistry between the married couple is terrific. The chemistry between student and teacher works wonderfully as well. Tucci can pull off so many emotions so subtly. He can exude a little charm. He can sound overconfident and snotty. He can appear vulnerable. There are times when he’s dealing with people (publisher, wife, students), that he has to have just a bit of panic on his face. It’s perfect. And just when you think the wife is only going to smile at everything and garden in the front yard, she delivers a knockout performance in a restaurant that’s one of the best scenes you’ll see in a film all year.
This indie film might not be for everyone, but if you’re a writer, teacher, or enjoy watching an interesting character study — don’t miss this. My wife and I went to bed that night discussing it for another 30 minutes (luckily, we were on the same page in how we felt about the the different characters).
3 ½ stars out of 5.