If there's one thing middle school could use more of, it's Amy Sedaris. There's nothing to take the edge off the most miserable place on earth like one of her wacky characters, roaming the halls at will, making you laugh without saying a word.
And I firmly believe that TV movies for middle-schoolers could use more Amy Sedaris, too - especially if the parents are also going to watch. In "Gym Teacher: The Movie," which premieres tonight on Nickelodeon, she plays a middle school principal named Abby Hofmann, who reigns with a tall hairdo and a twisted face, and can't hide her obsession with her gym teacher's form-fitting shorts.
She peddles a brand of humor, sarcastic and smart, that's far too rare on the current tween TV-movie circuit, dominated by the wildly successful Disney Channel franchise that began with "High School Musical" and saw its latest installment in this summer's "Camp Rock." These are earnest, old-school musicals, chaste tales of self-discovery that end with soaring pop songs, and while there's nothing really wrong with them, they do tend to leave a saccharine aftertaste.
"Gym Teacher" is a different breed of film, directed by Paul Dinello, who was one-third of the creative team behind Comedy Central's hilarious late-'90s series "Strangers With Candy." (The others were Sedaris, who played a 40-something recovering junkie who returns to her high school, and Stephen Colbert, who is currently engaged in other media affairs.)
If "Strangers" was a spoof of After School Specials, those iconic quickie-morality tales, "Gym Teacher" is a takeoff of every movie that peddled personal growth through physical fitness, from "The Karate Kid" to "Samurai Girl," the ABC Family miniseries that aired last weekend.
Here, the central figure is Dave Stewie, a onetime US gymnastics star who left the public stage after a humiliating crash during a vault. Played by Christopher Meloni - clearly thrilled to be taking a break from his super-serious role on "Law & Order: SVU" - he has reinvented himself as the beloved gym teacher at Hamm Lake Middle School, who drowns his self-doubt in protein drinks.
When his students urge him to join a competition for top gym teacher in the nation, Stewie faces two main obstacles: a rival prep-school gym teacher played by David Alan Grier, and a wimpy transfer student named Roland Waffle (Nathan Kress), whose overprotective mother instructs him to wear a helmet to school.
The scenario is perfect for a gently skewered take, filled with classic double-takes and cartoonish site gags - from the extended Hummer that takes the prep school kids to school to the way Stewie reacts to a new teacher-slash-love-interest. (Every time he sees her, he imagines her doing rhythmic gymnastics.) Still, even the dream sequences are blessedly low-key, free of giant production numbers or fancy martial-arts effects, save an artificial swooshing sound when Sedaris wields a Filipino fighting stick after hours.
Sedaris, so prominent early on, largely disappears by the second half of the movie, which is consumed by lengthy takeoffs on the standard transformational workout montage. Without her, the film loses some of its edge, but Meloni does his best to keep it funny. There's also a tidy life lesson in there, as Roland works his way up the physical and metaphorical gymnasium rope-swing. But any time things threaten to get maudlin, the movie takes pains to poke fun at itself, in a way that even a gentle eighth-grader could appreciate.
"I think I'm bleeding on my insides," Roland tells Stewie at one point.
"We all are, a little bit," Stewie responds.
"No," Roland says. "I mean, I think I really am. I taste iron." Compared to so much earnestness, that's a sweet sensation, indeed.