The 1999 teen revenge comedy, Teaching Mrs. Tingle, is unlikely ever to be mentioned among Helen Mirren’s career highlights, even if her diabolical characterization as a venomous history teacher is one of the few things the Kevin Williamson misstep has going for it. Inconsistent tone was high on the list of the film’s problems and the same goes for Maureen Bharoocha’s The Prank, keeping the frequently enjoyable digital-age satire from living up to its potential. Chief reward is a lip-smacking role for the glorious Rita Moreno as the disciplinarian physics teacher whose classroom severity has traumatized generations of high schoolers.
Written by husband-and-wife team Becca Flinn-White and Zak White, the film has a delicious setup. Smart, hard-working student Ben (Connor Kalopsis), whose dad died six months earlier, sweats out the results of a midterm exam that will partly determine his future. His widowed mother Julie (Meredith Salenger) will have a hard time putting Ben through college on her nurse’s salary, so a scholarship is imperative.
Moreno delivers even if the film loses its way.
His ice-cold physics teacher Mrs. Wheeler (Moreno) doesn’t try to hide her malevolent smile when she informs the students that their grades will be revealed at the end of the class. “Buckle up,” she tells them, only to announce that she’s failing all of them unless the person who cheated on the test steps forward.
When Ben shares his anger and frustration with his best friend Tanner (Ramona Young), a slacker with mad tech skills, she cooks up a vendetta plan to destroy Mrs. Wheeler’s decades-long career by creating an online conspiracy theory linking the teacher to a stoner student’s disappearance. Given that everyone from Principal Henderson (Keith David) to the local cops and reporters covering the spiraling case has felt the sting of Mrs. Wheeler’s tongue, the allegations springboard swiftly from the high school rumor mill to explosive murder scandal.
There’s toothsome fun in the observation of how effectively social media can serve as judge, jury and executioner, shredding reputations based on even the most fabricated evidence of wrongdoing. It’s also amusing to watch how quickly the voracious high school news cycle moves on to the next gulp of tea, a thirst fueled here by gossipy newsletter reporter Phillip (Nathan Janak). And for as long as the writers maintain the ambiguity surrounding Mrs. Wheeler, suggesting that beneath her monstrous veneer is an educator who really wants her students to succeed, the film bounces along, its teasing pleasures buoyed by Deron Johnson’s playfully suspenseful score.
But when first one and then another major plot reveal prompts a swerve into horror, the momentum sputters. A fabricated conflict between Ben and Tanner doesn’t help, nor does the half-baked thread of their two-person soccer cheer squad, which Ben loses interest in as he becomes more focused on his academic future. The superfluous single scene devoted to this makes it seem like an awkward survivor from an earlier script draft.
Kalopsis and Young have an entertaining platonic chemistry (this is a curiously sexless high school), and there are appealing supporting turns from Salenger, Keith and Kate Flannery as the sour school cafeteria lunch lady. But the film belongs to Moreno, clearly relishing the chance to play an unapologetic termagant. Just the way she savors monosyllables like “No” and “Wrong” as Mrs. Wheeler stumps her students with tough questions makes her a juicy antagonist. Moreno is game for everything the screenwriters throw at her, dialing up the ferocity and finding ruthless new resourcefulness even as Wheeler is backed into a corner.
But any attempt to examine the psychology of an uncompromising professional woman enraged when her dedication is met with disrespect and scorn is undermined as the film devolves into a kind of horror mayhem we’ve seen countless times before, slipping out of Bharoocha’s grasp as it transforms. The self-congratulatory note in the blooper reel over the end credits feels unearned on a slick-looking movie that gets too tangled up in its own complications to remain effective.