Teaching Mrs. Tingle (1999)
Directed by Kevin Williamson
Cast: Katie Holmes, Helen Mirren, Marisa Coughlan, Barry Watson, Jeffrey Tambor, Molly Ringwald, Michael McKean, Liz Stauber, Vivica A. Fox, Lesley Ann Warren.
1999 95 minutes
Rated: (for violence, sexual situations, and profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 21, 1999.
Now that I've seen "Teaching Mrs. Tingle," the directorial debut of "Scream" scribe Kevin Williamson, just one question lingers: exactly what type of film is this? If it is a black comedy, there are too many serious moments for it to fully take off; if it's a drama, the silliness definitely needed to be cut down; if it's a thriller, it's one in which suspense is promised but never arrives until the climactic scene; if it belongs in the horror genre, the film, with a PG-13 rating and very little violence or terror, is overly mild; and if it's a teen angst picture, the writing certainly leaves something to be desired.
Leigh Ann Watson (Katie Holmes) is a high school senior nearing graduation whose mother (Lesley Ann Warren) is stuck in a dead-end life as a waitress, and whose only hope to get into college is if she receives the scholarship given to the valedictorian of her class. Unfortunately, her two hurdles are a stuck-up fellow student (Liz Stauber) who currently is one point higher than she is, and an 'A' in her history class, which is seeming more and more unlikely because of her nasty, bitter teacher, Mrs. Tingle (Helen Mirren), a middle-aged Wicked Witch of the West who gets her kicks out of putting all of her pupils down and being the one to stand in the way of their dreams. When Leigh Ann is falsely caught by Mrs. Tingle with the answer sheet to the final exam in her bookbag, despite the culprit actually being the rebellious slacker, Luke (Barry Watson), Tingle threatens to report Leigh Ann the next morning and, thus, basically ruining her whole life. Convinced by Luke and Leigh Ann's best friend, the aspiring actress Jo Lynne (Marisa Coughlan), the three of them set off that night to Mrs. Tingle's home to explain and plead the whole misunderstanding with her. Things get out of hand and the plot thickens when Tingle threatens to call the police on them and ends up getting a crossbow accidentally shot at her, side-swiping her face and knocking her out. In desperation, the three drag the unconcious Mrs. Tingle upstairs to her room and tie her to the bedpost, ready to talk their way out of the situation once she comes to, but their elder has some surprises in store for them too, as she works to turn them against each other with some tricky mind games and believable lies.
"Teaching Mrs. Tingle" is the film that Williamson is known to have written the screenplay for before his fame with "Scream," and it was only after adding clout to his name was he allowed by Miramax's genre label, Dimension Films, to make the picture. Easy to believe, as "Teaching Mrs. Tingle" has all of the signs of a strictly novice effort, with the writing having almost none of the cleverness, style, and originality that has marked all of his other projects, from "Scream" to "I Know What You Did Last Summer" to TV's "Dawson's Creek." And as for being a director, Williamson shows some promise, but since the screenplay is seriously flawed and never takes off, neither does the film.
If there is one word to describe "Teaching Mrs. Tingle," that word is 'bland.' If the movie is never necessarily boring, it also is rarely interesting, and almost everything that occurs in the film (which, let's face it, isn't much) is strictly dull and insipid. The premise of an unforeseen hostage situation with the "Teacher From Hell" could have easily been exciting and inventive, with the three teens having to solve one complication after the other, but aside from one pedestrian instance in which the gym teacher (Jeffrey Tambor) arrives at Mrs. Tingle's home and addresses himself as, "Spankey," nothing of the sort ever happens. Instead, what we have are three characters essentially standing around a house, with the sly Mrs. Tingle occasionally playing with each one of theirs' emotions, and a non-graphic, but exploitative sex scene popping up at the most inopportune time for the simple reason of adding some spice to the proceedings. All it ends up adding, however, is an extra level of ludicrous plotting.
Veteran British actress Helen Mirren, as the cruel Mrs. Tingle, is far more astonishing and scene-stealing than she has any right to be, and raises this otherwise tepid film up a notch so that it could be classified as an "OK" film, rather than a downright bad one. From her early, brutal scene in which, one by one, Mrs. Tingle cold-heartedly criticizes her students as they get up to present a project, Mirren creates a character that is just about the most distinct, memorable movie villain I've ever seen. Not only that, but Mirren also creates an added dimension to Mrs. Tingle that probably would never have appeared had the performance not been as powerful, as we learn she is an unhappy woman hellbent on destroying her students because of her uncontrollable jealousy that many will become big-time successes, when she is still stuck in the same little town with the same job she had thirty years ago.
As the three central teen characters, Katie Holmes strikes an honest chord with her desperate character, but is not given the chance to really test her acting skills as she was with this past spring's "Go" and on "Dawson's Creek," due to a flat character that is never very appealing. Faring even worse is Barry Watson (TV's "7th Heaven"), who is stuck for the majority of the film blending into the background. His character of Luke is so thin, and not given the chance to do anything but act as an unconvincing love interest to Holmes, that he makes next to no impression. Marisa Coughlan is a different matter altogether; a fresh, talented find that will next be seen on Williamson's latest televsion excursion, "WasteLand," Coughlan's Jo Lynne is engaging in a way that Leigh Ann never is, and is given some of the more notable scenes, including a dead-ringer reenactment of the possessed Linda Blair in "The Exorcist" and another scene where she puts on a plausible act in front of Mrs. Tingle, only for the acid-tongued Tingle to respond, "I hope you make a good waitress." In supporting roles, everyone is wasted in basically cameos, particularly Vivica A. Fox, who has all of one scene as Leigh Ann's understanding guidance counselor. Only former teen queen Molly Ringwald is able to stand out, as the principal's assistant who takes over as substitute for Tingle and ends off teaching the material to the class equipped with a neverending slew of curse words.
"Teaching Mrs. Tingle" wraps up its story in an unconvincing manner that hammers the final nail in the film's coffin. Although Leigh Ann was right to fight for what she believed was right, that still does not excuse her or her two friends' criminal behavior, something which they get out of far too easily. And the last scene might have been satisfying had the end credits not have popped up so abruptly while in the middle of the scene. Was Williamson in such a breakneck rush to end the film that he didn't feel there was time to film a complete last scene before going to black and then starting the credits? Who knows? "Teaching Mrs. Tingle" has only one claim to notoriety, and it's Mirren's sparklingly vicious performance. Without her, the film would ultimately be a black hole of nothingness.
©1999 by Dustin Putman