'Tenured': Tribeca Review

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
The film doesn't manage to find new comic ground in its overly familiar premise

A depressed elementary school teacher takes out his personal problems on his young students in Chris Modoono's dark comedy

Early on in Chris Modoono's comedy, Ethan (Gil Zabarsky), a fifth-grader teacher who acts wildly inappropriately in front of his students, admits that he's a "bad teacher." And sure enough, just like Cameron Diaz in the 2011 film sporting that title, he turns out to be right. Based on the director's short film Teacher of the Year, Tenured has an all-too-familiar ring that makes it feel utterly predictable. If you don't know that the main character will have reformed before the end credits, you just haven't been seeing enough movies.

To its credit, the film is subtler than such predecessors as Bad Teacher and Bad Santa, featuring an emotional undercurrent that makes Ethan, to use the current parlance, relatable. He's not a bad guy — he's just morbidly depressed, as a result of being left by his firefighter wife (Emily Wilson). So now he's barely functional, falling asleep during parent-teacher conferences and profanely talking about his personal issues to his befuddled young students.

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This naturally attracts the ire of the school's assistant principal (Kate Flannery of The Office), who desperately wants him fired. Unable to do so because of his tenure, she appoints him director of the school play in the hopes that he'll sabotage himself.

And he inevitably does, rewriting the fairy tale script into a marital psychodrama featuring the hapless kids uttering such Bergmanesque lines as "I'm not trying to emasculate you, Ethan" in front of a horrified audience that includes his ex-wife. Meanwhile, he's oblivious to the obvious attraction of an attractive fellow teacher (Kathleen Littlefield).

Featuring scene after scene in which Ethan manipulates his charges into helping him avoid the traps laid by the assistant principal, Tenured does manage to be mildly amusing at times. Zabarsky, who co-wrote the script, is faced with the tricky task of making his deeply morose character funny, and mostly succeeds with his deadpan comic timing and delivery.

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But even with its brief running time, the film's Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote shtick eventually proves tiresome, with the filmmaker failing to provide enough comic flair to make the jokes land. Rather than being amused by Ethan's antics or sympathetic to his emotional pain, you'll mainly find yourself thinking of ways to revamp the educational system.

Production: Fox Digital Studio
Cast: Gil Zabarsky, Kate Flannery, Kathleen Littlefield, Maddux Berry, Alex Mills, Marc Evan Jackson, Emily Wilson
Director: Chris Modoono
Screenwriters: Chris Modoono, Gil Zabarsky
Producers: Paul Bernon, Sam Slater
Executive producer: Sev Ohanian
Director of photography: Tom Campbell
Production designer: Angel Herrera
Editor: Bryan Gaynor
Costume designer: Alex Simone
Composer: Cormac Bluestone
Casting: Joseph Wisniewski

Not rated, 82 minutes