Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Teaching Mrs. Tingle

By Marc Savlov

AUGUST 23, 1999: 

D: Kevin Williamson; with Katie Holmes, Helen Mirren, Barry Watson, Marisa Coughlan, Michael McKean, Vivica A. Fox, Jeffrey Tambor, Molly Ringwald. (PG-13, 96 min.)

The scribe who with Scream reinvented the slasher film for the Nineties also created with Dawson's Creek teens who are more eloquently ironic than some of the Bard's characters. Having also revitalized Miramax's interest in knives and bloodletting, this scribe has finally had his day behind the camera, and, like another famously prolific writer before him (hint: Maximum Overdrive), totally bungles it. Though his characters have always been wonderfully animated and poignant (more or less), Williamson, the director, could use a few hours back at USC film school. Teaching Mrs. Tingle, which has been plagued with undeserved problems (the film's title was changed from Killing Mrs. Tingle to Teaching Mrs. Tingle in the wake of the Columbine shootings; a TV spot featuring a dog drinking beer was pulled from broadcast over the flimsiest of MPAA reasons; and according to the film's PR people, Williamson is still doing last-minute editing as of this writing), is a mess, lacking the semi-subtle, rapier-like wit the writer displayed in previous efforts. Though it's awash in post-pubescent, postmodernist black irony, Teaching Mrs. Tingle has less bite than a toothless Chihuahua. Too bad, because the setup is a killer: High school brain and all-around good girl Leigh Ann Watson (Williamson regular Holmes) desperately needs the scholarship that will be awarded to her school's valedictorian. That coveted honor is still up in the air, though, and the outcome depends heavily on how the meanest teacher in the school, spinsterish Mrs. Tingle (Mirren), reacts to Leigh Ann's final project. Things do not go well, and from there they go to worse as Leigh Ann is found innocently carrying a purloined copy of Tingle's final exam in her JanSport. It's all a terrible misunderstanding, of course, but in the hands of Williamson events quickly spiral out of control until Leigh Ann and her friends Luke (Watson) and Jo Lynn (Coughlan) have poor, dowdy Tingle tied spread-eagled to her four-poster, grimly trying to convince her to let Leigh Ann off the hook. Apart from one delicious scene in which Jo Lynn, an aspiring actress, re-creates Linda Blair's Exorcist shenanigans for a trussed and disbelieving Tingle, Williamson's directorial debut is a sad affair, devoid of shocks, surprises, or even his trademark clever dialogue. Events are telegraphed far too much in advance, and a silly subplot involving Jeffrey Tambor as the lovestruck Coach "Spanky" Wenchell is just plain grating. Mirren, try though she might, is stuck in Williamson's cookie-cutter mold of the Very Bad Teacher (her first appearance onscreen is marked by a musical theme reminiscent of the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz) and can't break free to score her own nuances. Everyone else involved seems to be equally trapped, including Eighties teen-flick stalwart Ringwald, who cameos as Tingle's substitute. Ultimately drearily dull, Teaching Mrs. Tingle could use some fresh blood behind it -- Williamson seems like he's already all tapped out.

2 Stars

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