It must have been Bette Midler’s former manager, Aaron Russo (Teachers‘s producer), who somehow confused Arthur Hiller as the creative force behind The Hospital. Teachers is very much like The Hospital, but in its stoic protagonist, the stoic protagonist’s ultimate choice in the end, and the strange hijinks. However, as is clearly evidenced by JoBeth Williams’s strange, too flat to be absurdist nudist jaunt, Hiller is not a social commentator. He’s the guy who’d go on to direct Carpool and National Lampoon’s Pucked.
Hiller isn’t the biggest problem with Teachers. The film could survive his competent and unimaginative direction–Hiller seems to have influenced not just every modern sitcom director, but also Jon Favreau, who’s a similarly torpid director. The problem is the script. I don’t know if W.R. McKinney used to be a teacher (it seems likely for press purposes, regardless of uncredited script doctors), but he’s a terrible writer. He’s got severe problems with dialogue and his plotting is awkward. Some of his details are good–he’s got some funny stuff. But mostly he’s awful.
What makes Teachers work is the acting. Nick Nolte runs the whole thing. He’s got a big monologue–poorly written–and Nolte, even with Hiller’s lame direction and Don Zimmerman’s incapable editing, makes it work. He makes it superior.
Much of the supporting cast is good–Judd Hirsch is good as the sellout (rebel teacher turned assistant principal), Allen Garfield as the befuddled but well-meaning teacher, Richard Mulligan (in one of McKinney’s stupidest moves), Morgan Freeman, William Schallert. Williams is okay in her inessential and unlikely role. Ralph Macchio–idiotic costume aside–runs hot and cold. Lee Grant and Laura Dern are terrible, particularly Grant, who has no excuse (Teachers was one of Dern’s first films and her character is, to be fair, atrociously written).
But the Aaron Russo-produced white guy soundtrack–Bob Seger, Joe Cocker, ZZ Top–takes center stage, big shock (the advertisement for the soundtrack is the second end credits card, right after Russo’s credit for producing it too). The soundtrack’s poorly handled, like no one told Hiller it’d be there; not to mention the sound levels being confusing (is the music playing for the characters during Nolte and Williams’s date, or just for the moviegoer).
Teachers has–until the very end–a certain optimism going for it. It loses it then, when the script–shock of shocks–crumbles under its own ridiculousness. A better director could have helped, but not without an artistically-minded (versus soundtrack album sales minded) producer and a great rewrite. Still, seeing Hirsch in a film makes it worthwhile to some degree. And Nolte does have some fantastic moments.
Directed by Arthur Hiller; screenplay by W.R. McKinney; director of photography, David M. Walsh; edited by Don Zimmerman; production designer, Richard Macdonald; produced by Aaron Russo; released by United Artists.
Starring Nick Nolte (Alex Jurel), JoBeth Williams (Lisa Hammond), Judd Hirsch (Roger Rubell), Ralph Macchio (Eddie Pilikian), Allen Garfield (Carl Rosenberg), Lee Grant (Dr. Donna Burke), Richard Mulligan (Herbert Gower), Royal Dano (Ditto Stiles), William Schallert (Horn), Art Metrano (Troy), Laura Dern (Diane), Crispin Glover (Danny), Morgan Freeman (Lewis), Madeleine Sherwood (Grace) and Steven Hill (Sloan).