Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Schoolhouse Block—the Movie

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part Three
Mike Million (director), Tenure

Professor Charlie Thurber (Luke Wilson) loves teaching, and his students love him back, some a little more than they probably should. But he hates academia's competitive paper chase. After being passed over for tenure once too often, he decides to knuckle down and join the game at bucolic Grey College. But a screw-loose colleague, a sexy competitor, and family pressures may be more than a loyal English professor can bear.

This straight-to-DVD gem will probably never get the recognition it deserves. PR people can't compress its concept into a plug line. Its gentle, optimistic tone defies hip cinematic cynicism. And its low-key humor, based on characters and language rather than broad physical comedy, will never rake in the big bucks. Yet I can't help but love this film, possibly because I see myself and my colleagues here on screen.

As Grey College’s only non-tenured English instructor, Charlie assumes a new full professorship is his for the asking. Until the department hires Elaine Grasso (Gretchen Mol), formerly of Harvard, a well-published but awkward wunderkind, to sweeten the competition. Charlie, a gifted teacher, sports a brief CV, because “publish or perish” passed him by. But with job security and pay on the line, he becomes painfully aware of academic politics.

At the other extreme, comedian David Koechner (Anchorman, The Office) plays Charlie’s best friend Jay. A chronic loser and academic outcast himself, he apparently exists to offer appalling advice. Urging Charlie into numerous adolescent stunts and theatrical displays, he definitely increases Charlie’s visibility before the tenure committee. But Charlie quickly questions whether succeeding at the cost of his integrity really accomplishes anything.

Luke Wilson (left) and Gretchen Mol

Anybody who’s studied, or taught, university-level liberal arts recently will recognize Charlie’s fundamental struggles. For three generations, America saw investment in higher education as not merely a moral good, but a tool for fighting the Cold War. Since the middle 1990s, however, willingness to subsidize education has plummeted. Administrative patronage plums have mushroomed, while classroom budgets have cratered. Fiercer competition for fewer jobs has become SOP in academia.

But this story isn’t exclusively for scholastic types. Anyone who’s felt the frustration of today’s widening gap between work and reward will recognize this story. Charlie desperately wants, not fame nor recognition, but security enough to do his job the best way possible. Glimpses of his classroom technique and his students’ undisguised respect prove he’s proficient. Yet somehow, in today’s go-go economy, doing a good job isn’t good enough anymore.

This movie’s shoestring production permits a design edge missing from many recent Hollywood spectacles. Shot for $5 million, it uses existing locations, like historic Bryn Mawr College, to give the production an authentically bygone texture. Without expensive music or digital effects, the producers rely upon genuine performances and careful mood to hook audiences. It’s odd, and appealing, to watch a film without having our senses shocked or our emotions manipulated.

I especially respect writer-director Mike Million’s rejection of hip conventional screenwriting techniques. In a movie marketplace dominated by Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!, we’ve become jaded on over-high stakes, cascading tragedies, and three-act structures. Million’s picaresque storytelling, about a schlubby everyman who wants to do a good job well, makes an engaging change. This movie offers few focus-tested surprises, preferring to offer engaging characters in a smart situation.

And thankfully Million avoids the most obvious trap: he doesn’t force Charlie and Elaine into bed. Throughout the movie, they develop mutual respect, even friendship, that complicates Charlie’s desire to subvert her career. Toward the end, they imply the possibility of possible future courtship. But essentially, their relationship is a realistic depiction of professional competition between two smart people who happen to be opposite sex.

Wilson plays Charlie so he has our sympathy, but doesn't need our pity. He excels at what he does, and students seek his help because he's a good teacher. But being good isn't good enough anymore. Anybody who's ever postponed grading or given students just enough to get by while hammering on our own scholarship to show the department we deserve to exist, will recognize Charlie as one of our own.

And this movie doesn't jump out waving jazz hands to convince us we ought to laugh. Despite a few exaggerated moments, it mainly displays an understated quality that shows its audience a level of respect we've grown unaccustomed to recently. If more movies like this emerged from mainstream Hollywood dream factories, Sunset Strip might have fewer zillionaires, but the movies would still be something to look forward to.

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