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Photograph by Kerry Brown, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Monkey Business: Carey Mulligan as Jenny and Peter Sarsgaard as David share the fruits of love.

'An Education' Flunks Out

Predictable script undermines notable acting debut.

By Christina Waters

IF THERE had never been a Rita Tushingham, a Miss Jean Brodie or a Molly Ringwald, An Education might have offered more about female awakening than a few wry morsels of domestic humor. But there were, and it doesn't. The trailer teased me into expecting a deft coming-of-age film that would not only showcase a remarkable new actress--Carey Mulligan--but offer fresh insight into a tale that has been told by idiots long before Danish director Lone Scherfig came along.

Cold kidney pie has more zip than this stereotype-driven tale of a smart suburban schoolgirl in 1960s England, finishing up her studies in hopes of a brilliant career at Oxford. Flattered by the sudden attentions of an older man (Peter Sarsgaard), Mulligan's bored Jenny soon finds herself running with a couple of Kensington swells, played nicely by Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike, a letter-perfect party girl. To the frustration of her father--a wonderful Alfred Molina, who, like almost everyone else in the film, is much better than the material--Jenny is beginning to act like a teenager in love with the persistent David. It's very Bonjour Tristesse, with the smoking of cigarettes, listening to Juliette Greco records and daydreaming about the exotic world of art, music and restaurants. As her studies slide, Jenny is watched from the sidelines by her lit teacher (a lovely bit by Olivia Williams), hoping against hope that her young protégée will resist the temptations of the mystery suitor. We hope so too, since neither the part nor the actor bring much charm or sex appeal to the scenario.

Let me stop right here. No way do I believe the opening gambit that a poised 17-year-old would accept a ride in an expensive car with a total stranger. Much less start dating him. Furthermore it doesn't take Albert frickin' Einstein to figure out that this guy is trouble. He has no day job, no depth, and, aside from spending money, no interests. The fact that Sarsgaard has all the savoir faire of an insurance adjustor adds to our utter confoundment.

As long as the camera stays on the ripe, mobile face of Mulligan, we are willing to stick around--at least for an hour--to see whether David turns up to be a diamond in disguise or just another smiling predator out for a good time. But An Education's second half topples under the weight of clichés and Saarsgard's lethargy. Surely the director knows that this story has been done a thousand times before, I thought to myself as I waited for some new twist to illuminate the textbook tale of a good girl gone wrong. But no. No new twists, only old ones, right down to the embarrassing sight of Molina whispering plaintively to his daughter through her closed door, "I know I've made a mess of things."

No, Fred, the director has made a mess of things and needs to go back to film school for an education in script (Nick Hornby's screenplay is ludicrous), pacing and vision. If I see one more shot of lovers drinking wine on the Pont Neuf, I'll, well, you get my drift.

Emma Thompson, a once great comedian and actress, should be ashamed of her predictable three minutes onscreen as a caustic headmistress. Mulligan, whose face can move from weary to radiant with lightning speed, is a genuine find. And Pike is almost delicious as a gold-digging bimbo spouting Marilyn Monroe non sequiturs. Almost. And "almost" is really the theme of this lackluster Education.

Movie Times AN EDUCATION (PG-13; 95 min.), directed by Lone Scherfig, written by Nick Hornby and starring Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina and Emma Thompson, opens Friday at the Del Mar Theatre.

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