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Gym Teacher

Sony Pictures // Unrated // February 3, 2009
List Price: $19.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by David Cornelius | posted March 9, 2009 | E-mail the Author
Nobody says "kid-friendly comedy" like Christopher Meloni, star of "Law & Order: SVU" and "Oz," scene stealer of "Wet Hot American Summer" and the "Harold and Kumar" movies. He's precisely the first actor you'd want for your made-for-Nickelodeon movie, providing your made-for-Nickelodeon movie was all about hard drugs, prison, and murder.

But I kid Christopher Meloni, because his turn in Nickelodeon's "Gym Teacher: The Movie" is a work of oddball brilliance. I'd seen him be funny before, but nothing like he is here, in a performance made entirely of twitchiness and spastic ramblings and cheap pomposity. He's an actor completely unafraid of being stupid for a giggle.

The movie's success lies in the combination of Meloni and Paul Dinello, the "Strangers with Candy" co-creator who takes the directing chair. The two bring with them a certain weird-comedy-for-grown-ups vibe that lifts the story away from kid-flick cliché just enough for us to get in some serious laughs. The screenplay, from newcomers Daniel and Steven Altiere, is a strange mix, blending tiresome kid-flick cliché with a sharp set-ups and whip-smart punchlines; it's as if they took a mandatory plot outline and superimposed both witty middle school book fair material and wiseacre sketch comedy anarchy. In Dinello's hands, then, the script plays as an explosion of styles, most of them working.

Meloni stars as Dave Stewie, a former gymnast whose past failures - he let down his country when he choked big time at the 1988 Olympics - are finally behind him now that he's the gym teacher at Hamm Lake Middle School. His love of dodgeball makes him a favorite among the kids ("Is it my fault I teach the only class that's any fun around here?" he brags), so when a National Gym Teacher of the Year contest is announced, he's a shoo-in not only to enter, but to win. Problem is, he's not sure if he's willing to risk another go at national humiliation. Can he overcome his own fears while teaching his students how to overcome their own?

Worse, the rules of the contest state every student must participate, even a spaz like new kid Roland Waffle (Nathan Kress, of "iCarly"), whose mom insists he wear a helmet to school. It's through Roland that the script works all of its kid movie formula: Roland learns to be a champion, the team learns to accept him, Dave falls in love with his mom (Chelah Horsdal), who's the new English teacher at school. But it's also here that the script sneaks in some delicious insanity: Roland's dad was killed in a freak potato sack race accident, thus leaving mom to be overly fearful of phys. ed. fun.

There's also a terrific spoof of a kids' eye view of educators. "Gym Teacher" assumes, as well it should, that the home lives of teachers are strange little worlds full of peculiar obsessions. In Mr. Stewie's case, he spends his off hours at an all-gym teacher nightspot called the Chin-Up Bar, where wheat grass drinks are served up by the shot, where banana smoothies are ordered with a stern "make mine a double." Meanwhile, the principal, played by the great Amy Sedaris as if doing a kooky Estelle Getty impression, is all sternness and craziness and yup, she seems to live at the school, as all principals do.

The movie ultimately settles down into less bizarre territory as Roland slowly abandons his spaz status (he even gets the girl!), and as the Hamm Lake gang faces off against rivals from a snooty prep school (with coach David Alan Grier) in the national finals. It's here things fizzle a bit (too many young characters are shoved into the sidelines, and too many hokey clichés are brought in for conflict purposes), but "Gym Teacher" is never really about plot. There's a mix of sweetness and hyperactive silliness - a sort of charming madness - that lets the story rise above its formula trappings. Dinello's offbeat sensibilities fit quite well with Nickelodeon-style comedy (there's a "Ned's Declassified" tone to all this madness), and the movie becomes all about how weird and silly the cast can get without letting the comedy get away from them. The young stars hold their own against Meloni, Sedaris, and Grier, who hold their own right back, and then some.

Now give me twenty laps.

The DVD

Video & Audio


"Gym Teacher" looks every bit the brand new made-for-basic-cable movie it is, with a clean crispness on display in this 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Detail is sharp and colors are lively.

The soundtrack is a simple, clear Dolby 2.0, nothing fancy yet perfectly serviceable. Optional English subtitles are provided.

Extras

All of the bonus material is light filler, the sort of thing likely made to play during commercial breaks on Nickelodeon. Good thing they're mostly entertaining. "Behind the Scenes" (4:09; 1.33:1 full frame, with movie clips letterboxed) features short, jokey interviews with the cast; it's little more than a promo piece.

"Gym Class" (1:38; 1.33:1) continues this, asking the cast to discuss their favorite gym class activities, worst gym memories, and tips on how to survive phys. ed. (#5: don't fart until after sit-ups).

"Bloopers" (2:43; 1.78 flat letterbox) is funnier than the usual batch of outtakes, thanks mainly to Meloni's rubber face and Sedaris' quick wit.

Three short deleted scenes (3:44; 1.78:1 letterbox) offer some nifty unused moments: an expanded opening montage shows Dave popping eggs and bacon in the blender for breakfast; a reporter catches Dave after the regional contest (expanding a subplot that doesn't go anywhere in the movie); and, best, Roland's mom spends some more time with Dave on a date (Horsdal's comic timing here is flawless, but the scene is sweet, too, and I wish this moment would've made it into the final cut).

"Bruce Jenner's Failed Summer Games" (1:42; 1.33:1) finds the Olympic legend (who pops in for a cameo in the film) counting down ten rejected sports, like the Pie-Athon and Long Distance Unicycling. Cute.

To help promote Nick's upcoming "High School Musical" rip-off "Spectacular!," a music video (2:27; 1.78:1 letterbox) for that movie's "Everything Can Change" is also included.

Previews for several other Nickelodeon and Sony Wonder titles round out the set. Quickie teasers for "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" and "Planet 51" play as the disc loads.

Final Thoughts

Kids will love seeing Kress' nerd-triumph story, while parents will adore Meloni's own absurd ways. Everyone's a winner! Recommended.
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