"Educating Rita," a British movie creakily transposed from a London theatrical hit, goes deep in hock while borrowing shallowly from influences like "Pygmalion," "Born Yesterday" and "The Owl and the Pussycat."
Despite the obvious sources of inspiration, playwright Willy Russell, who also did the screenplay,seems to function at a level of strained, trivialized glibness more likely to type him as the English Bernard Slade than exalt him as a snappy successor to Bernard Shaw. "
For some inexplicable reason, the name Rita has been assumed by the heroine, a dissatisfied young woman named Susan who craves formal education and enrolls in a private tutorial program in literature offered by an institution of higher learning (presumably in and around London, although the movie was shot in Ireland). Her instructor is the disillusioned departmental drunkard, Frank Bryant. The gist of the play (and the movie) is that irrepressible, ignorant Rita-Susan (Julie Walters, who originated the role on the stage) helps bring the decaying English professor (Michael Caine, probably doing a favor for director Lewis Gilbert, who did "Alfie" 18 years ago) out of his self-loathing funk while he familiarizes her with a once unattainable world of literary appreciation and couth self-expression.
The material's appeal depends on persuading audiences that this mismatched odd couple can achieve mutual character improvement, in the form of renewed feelings of self-esteem, along with incidental comic banter and conflict. The fundamental weakness in Russell's technique is that he does little to authenticate the process of salubrious transformation. This process must be taken on faith.
What you see of Russell's characters at first glance is pretty much what you're destined to get throughout the movie; they come on like slightly outrageous "characters" and never really contradict or transcend the initial cliched and facetious impressions. For example, Julie Walters tones down her hairdos, wardrobes and slang vocabulary to indicate Rita's acquisition of a certain refinement as her studies progress, but the changes in the character never seem anything but cosmetic. She enters as an uninhibited vulgarian, a defensive, ignorant guttersnipe equipped with a funny whining voice. While the heroine has grown too cultivated for this line of hyperbole by the fadeout, the pose of newfound assurance and dignity she's acquired seems as shaky and artificial as the original vulgarity.
In a similar respect, Caine's drunken, cynical academic seems to reverse his compulsive downfall only to accommodate an upbeat curtain scene. There's no compelling reason to believe that this despondent lump of erudition would be stirred out of his sloth by Rita's irrepressible avidity for book learning or that he'd prove capable of guiding her enthusiasm in a useful way. Indeed, she seems to get her key educational break when she's away from him, during a summer school program that involves her with other students. Before his belated turnaround, the professor seems intent on letting drink scandalize him right out of a livelihood.
The relationship between Rita and Frank is kept platonic, but it's inhibited dramatically by a lack of convincing mental or emotional interaction. Instead of striking invigorating sparks off one another, the characters tend to settle into overlapping, cliched specialty acts, with the eager pupil doing her incorrigible hoyden number while the bleary prof does his incorrigible boozer number.
Playing a sluggish, defeatist personality does little for Caine, and his inertia is more than reinforced by Gilbert's laborious direction. As the saucy ingredient in the mixture, Walters is obliged to carry a heavy burden of irrepressible adorability. Rita's ostensible age, 26, looks about a decade off, and there's a general tendency to invite disbelief while filling in the backgrounds. Denny, Rita's cluck of a husband, is an expendable drag on the continuity as well as the heroine. And surely it cancels out an opening sightgag illustrating Frank's addiction--a Scotch bottle hidden on the bookshelves behind a copy of "The Lost Weekend"--to show literally hundreds of used bottles littering those shelves when he begins packing up his library. If you're going to set up the more exaggerated laugh logically, the room ought to rattle mysteriously each time the door to Frank's office opens and closes. "EDUCATING RITA"
Produced and directed by Lewis Gilbert; coproducer, William P. Cartlidge; screenplay by Willy Russell; director of photography, Frank Watts, B.S.C.; edited by Garth Craven. Presented by Columbia Pictures. Rated PG. THE CAST Dr. Frank Bryant/Michael Caine Rita/Julie Walters Brian/Michael Williams Trish/Maureen Lipman Julia/Jeananne Crowley