Because Some Guy Cinema is a thing I made up without a ton of thought beyond a general feeling that leading men were more interesting between, say, 1973 and 1991, I have the luxury of making up rules as I go along (and/or breaking them, because, again, I made all of this up, so get off my back already). As a result, I spend a lot of time trying to decide whether any given film suits our purposes here, and the answers I come up with often surprise me. Take, for example, Teachers.
Released in the fall of 1984, Teachers was helmed by director Arthur Hiller, who was in the midst of a string of Some Guy-type features that also tended to be flops: 1982’s Making Love and Author, Author!, 1983’s Romantic Comedy, and 1984’s The Lonely Guy all either tanked or underwhelmed at the box office. This was in large part due to the fact that they tended to be less than good, but those films also underscored Hiller’s versatility as a filmmaker, his interest in a wide variety of subjects, and his overall appreciation for “small” stories revolving around human interaction.
This all comes into play with Teachers, which takes a tragicomic look at the inner workings of a high school in Columbus, Ohio. It’s essentially an ensemble piece featuring an impressive number of talented actors, including some future stars, but the film is nominally led by Nick Nolte, who plays Social Studies teacher Alex Jurel. Formerly a passionate young educator, Jurel has been so ground down by the system that when we first see him, he’s in the process of being roused from bed by a phone call from the school secretary, who pointedly reminds him that he’s half an hour late.
It’s a wheelhouse role for Nolte, who’s well-matched with Judd Hirsch as Jurel’s best friend on the staff, Roger Rubell, a fellow formerly fire-bellied teacher who’s since settled in as the school’s mildly harried vice principal. While Alex and much of the rest of the staff create regular pains in the ass for Roger, he has bigger fish to fry — specifically, a lawsuit that’s been filed against the school by a former student who was allowed to graduate despite not being able to read or write.
For Hiller fans, this will likely be a familiar outline, as it’s superficially similar to the one he used for 1971’s The Hospital, starring George C. Scott. But a decade and change can make a lot of difference — The Hospital was written by Paddy Chayefsky, who had a definite way when it came to making satire out of systemic failure, while Teachers was penned by W.R. McKinney, whose screenwriting career began and ended here. This is not to say that Teachers is a bad film — it’s definitely got a stiffer spine and more of a pulse than, say, Romantic Comedy — just that it lacks the courage of its convictions. It could, and should, be a lot darker than it is.
Nevertheless, it’s a fine Some Guy Cinema entry when viewed through a Jurel-specific lens, and Nolte is a terrific choice to bring the character to life. Like a lot of our protagonists throughout this series, Jurel starts out as someone who’s clearly and willfully falling short of his potential, and doing so in ways that provoke frequent scorn from the people around him. Also similar to a lot of Some Guys, he undergoes a reawakening and starts doing the right thing — which only pisses off the people around him more. It’s a reliably entertaining arc, even when, as sadly tends to be the case with Teachers, it’s handled in a rather ham-handed way. (This is one of those movies that ends with someone tearing up a crucial piece of paper in front of the people who are trying to force that person to sign it. You know the type.)
Fortunately, most of Teachers‘ most glaring problems don’t rear their dundered heads until pretty late in the film, so you can spend a decent portion of the runtime appreciating the interplay between the actors. Nolte and Hirsch are good enough together to make you wish they’d co-starred in other films, JoBeth Williams is very good as the attorney (and a former student of Jurel’s) who’s leading the lawsuit against the school, and there are a series of smaller yet still rewarding appearances from a murderer’s row of talent that includes Morgan Freeman, William Schallert, and Lee Grant. That isn’t even including the younger members of the cast — the student body includes Laura Dern, who has a brief but pivotal arc; Crispin Glover, who plays a troubled student with all the unsettling energy of a method actor who probably got into character by eating paste and paying real teenagers to beat him up; and Ralph Macchio, whose performance here suggests he could have had a very different and far more interesting career if he’d never done a crane kick.
The main problem, at least for the first couple thirds of the movie, is that Teachers can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be a drama or a comedy. There’s really nothing wrong with mixing tones, but you need to be able to achieve some sort of blend, and the movie leaves you with the impression that Hiller may have been pressured into crowbarring extra laughs into the final cut. For example, there’s an entire subplot revolving around an outpatient from a mental hospital, played by Richard Mulligan, who wanders onto campus under false pretense and spends most of the movie teaching history. These bits are distracting, generally not all that funny, and they’re ultimately used to make a dumb point in a very obvious way. Another subplot focuses on the most boring teacher in the school, who’s the recipient of one of the movie’s funniest lines — “if it weren’t for tenure, you’d be selling vacuum cleaners” — but also serves as the punchline for a plot point that encapsulates just how unsuccessfully Teachers tries to juggle its dramatic and comedic elements.
It all goes sailing completely off the rails in the final 15-20 minutes, a stretch that crams in Major Incidents and Big Speeches with all the grace of an infant wielding a jackhammer — I’m betting that Williams in particular got to the last few pages and let out a bone-weary sigh, because the closing moments do her dirtiest of all. But again, until then, this is a halfway decent forum for some interesting actors to do some interesting things, and it’s also worth noting that what was meant to be a dystopian vision of public education in 1984 has proven itself to be dispiritingly prescient about certain aspects of public education in the years since. If you can tolerate some awkward moments of actors trying to manage hacky dialogue, it’s worth your 106 minutes. (Or most of them, anyway.) Cool soundtrack, too. Three and a half out of five Scheiders.