Tied-up class actress can’t save ‘Tingle’
At area theaters, Helen Mirren can act with her hands tied behind her back. Or tied to the bedpost, as they are throughout most of “Teaching Mrs. Tingle,” a sour comedy about teens who take revenge on a crusty high-school teacher. The wonderful Mirren, star of the PBS series “Prime Suspect,” plays the crisp, sarcastic Mrs. Tingle, a history teacher who takes perverse delight in humiliating her students. We’ve all had such a teacher at one time or another, but thanks to the classically trained Mirren’s finesse, Mrs. Tingle is not such an ogre that you care to see her life in danger at the hands of some surpassingly silly teens who don’t like their grades. With whom should we sympathize? Everyone acts very badly in “Mrs. Tingle,” the first script ever penned by Kevin “Scream” Williamson. He has dusted it off to make his directorial debut, but the screenplay shows its greenness by veering awkwardly between black comedy and low-grade horror. For every interesting plot turn, there are several crashing cliches and an inordinate number of cute-dog reaction shots, one of the laziest ways of coaxing an audience into your corner.
Mirren spends most of the movie tied to a bed with a gag in her mouth, and still you can see how good she is in comparison to the young actors who surround her. You can almost read the movie as a metaphor for how the best actors are hog-tied by the crummy roles they’re offered. Fetching “Dawson’s Creek” star Katie Holmes plays Leigh Ann Watson, one of a trio of students caught cheating. Leigh Ann is innocent, more or less – the stolen copy of an upcoming test was foisted on her just as Mrs. Tingle walked in – but this will kill her chances of winning a scholarship that will rocket her out of this small town. Also in the soup are Leigh Ann’s best friend (Marisa Coughlan) and the cute boy (Barry Watson) who threatens to come between them. The three temporarily solve their problem by keeping Mrs. Tingle hostage, but every time the gag comes off, the deliciously skeptical schoolmarm manages to pit the teens against one another, using only psychology and a few well-chosen looks. Williamson obviously imagined this as a chess game that taps into the teen Zeitgeist. But “Mrs. Tingle” is very much a freshman effort, lacking focus, edge and much of anything to do for a talented supporting cast that includes Jeffrey Tambor, Lesley Ann Warren, Vivica Fox and Michael McKean.