Every caring profession creates a certain gallows humour; teaching is no different, so why shouldn’t teachers have their own version of M*A*S*H*? That’s the premise for Arthur Hiller’s widely forgotten comedy drama from 1984, which aims for the black comedy of the same director’s The Hospital but ends up with sitcom parabolising. That said, it’s got a remarkably young all-star cast that makes it worth a look for fans of Ralph Macchio, Laura Dern, Crispin Glover, Morgan Freeman and more.
The setting is Ohio, where the students of John F Kennedy High School seem intent of desecrating the good name of the school and the idealistic notions it suggests. The Vice principal (Judd Hirch from Taxi) is weather-beaten by the effort of keeping a lid on things, but the misbehaviour of his own teachers, specifically Alex Jurel (Nick Nolte) only makes his job harder. A graduate, who left the school with no reading or writing skills, is preparing a law-suit, and lawyer Lisa Hammond (JoBeth Williams) arrives at the school to investigate, only to fall for Alex’s salty charms.
Teachers isn’t a sex-comedy, and nor is it parody; it aims to be a state-of-the-nation, blistering indictment of the system, and unfortunately most of the gags and punches don’t quite land. While it’s possible that a teacher might sit dead at his desk while the pupils file in and out of his classroom, the incident doesn’t say much about the school other than it’s chaotic. Any notion of wider political pressures is subdued; the school, teachers and dramas all seem too generic to engage. Morgan Freeman’s appearance as a lawyer is a highlight, immaculately dressed and coiffured, a model of saturnine charm.
Eventually, Alex gets involved with the classes he teaches, taming a wild child (Macchio), trying to sort out the personal life of another (Dern). He flirts with destroying the system, but eventually chooses to throw his weight behind a lost cause. Teachers never hits the heights of Dead Poets’ Society, The Breakfast Club or Stand and Deliver, and lacks a comic lead, but it’s an interesting snap-shot of educational issues which have never quite gone away. And Mulligan’s history teacher, who involves the kids in creating elaborate tableau’s of momentous events, is something of a hoot, much like the similar character seen in Alan Bennett’s sophisticated British take on education, The History Boys.