Bad Teacher (2011) / Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for sexual content, nudity, language and some drug use
Running time: 92 min.
Cast: Cameron Diaz, Lucy Punch, Jason Segel, Justin Timberlake, John Michael Higgins, Phyllis Smith, Thomas Lennon, Matthew J. Evans, Kaitlin Dever
Cameo: David Paymer, Molly Shannon, Rick Overton
Director: Jake Kasdan
Screenplay: Gene Stupnitsky, Lee Eisenberg
Review published July 12, 2011
This generically titled film is about, you guessed it, a bad teacher. The only title more fitting would have been Bad Movie, though I suppose that might not be necessary, as any film where the creative minds behind it all can't come up with a title better than Bad Teacher should tell you how much thought and effort they will put into the finished product. To some extent, Bad Teacher is very reminiscent in spirit to Bad Santa, with its alcohol-swilling, foul-mouthed central character doing mean things to kids and adults alike. One can envision a ragtag franchise (of sorts) of "Bad" films with various occupations where it would be inappropriate to be heinous, which would make it much easier for audiences who are giddy for all things politically incorrect to flock to without having to think or know what the film is all about.
Cameron Diaz (The Green Hornet, Knight and Day) is the 'bad teacher', Elizabeth Halsey, who binge drinks, smokes pot (at school), tosses out profanity liberally, and could not care less about the well-being of the 7th-graders she is in charge of at the middle school she conducts class at in suburban Illinois. Anyone can see she can't stand her job, which she is only doing until she can land another wealthy bachelor she can gold dig into. She sees her way out when a handsome but dorky new teacher joins the school in Scott Delacorte (Timberlake, The Love Guru) , but she thinks that he has a fetish for large breasts, so she is obsessed with getting a boob job so she can snare her man. Trouble is, she's broke and can't afford the surgery, so while she's concocting many money-making schemes, she finds Delacorte is beginning to get cozy with 'Ms. Perky' (in more ways than one), the school busybody named Amy Squirrel (Punch, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger). Also getting in her way is the frequent advances of the school's gym teacher, the nearly penniless slacker, Russell Gettis (Segel, I Love You Man), who doesn't seem to know when to take 'no' for an answer.
If I were pressed to describe the thematic intention of this seemingly random, vulgar comedy, it would be to make the opposite of the "inspirational teacher movie" like Stand and Deliver, Lean On Me, and Dangerous Minds, by setting the film, not in the inner city, but in the suburbs, and making the teacher a morally challenged person rather than one of great character. Ironic that all three of those inspirational films are alluded to when Elizabeth shows those movies to her class, and more ironic that she is the only one in the class who could learn something from them, but doesn't. The idea for this movie might be an amusing premise for an "SNL" skit perhaps, but without much more hook than this, it's a joke that's spread mighty thin. Director Jake Kasdan (Orange County, Zero Effect) continues the kitchen-sink-dark-comedy trend he established in his previous effort, Walk Hard, though in both cases, things only seem more funny on paper than they actually are when acted out. "The Office" co-writers Stupnitsky and Eisenberg give more workplace scenarios and awkward situations, but the level of comedy as akin to the lazy, halfhearted effort they put forth in their equally sophomoric Year One.
The only commendable aspect of a film this devoid of clever or amusing ideas is the good ensemble cast of capable comedic players. Diaz gives it her raunchy best, and still maintains a certain likeability despite her character's awful life choices and callous treatment of others. Lucy Punch plays well against type (she usually gets the kinky sex vixen roles) by going goody-two-shoes, though Timberlake's attempt to do the same is the film's weakest link, as he is given little more than the same joke told different ways. But it's hard not to at least keep things amusing when Segel is on the screen, who can turn most feeble gags into something more thoughtful and understatedly clever. Choice gags go to John Michael Higgins (Yes Man, Fred Claus) and Phyllis Smith ("The Office") as stereotypical Midwest easily swayed naivety sees them believing all too easy Elizabeth's vicious ruses. The kids, with the exception of two one-note characters, are mostly just used as a chorus for the adults of the cast.
The film never really divulges just how or why Halsey became a public school teacher, which would seem a nearly impossible place to meet a wealthy adult bachelor, as if it were a job one just stumbles into until something better comes along. Nor does it really explain just why such a relatively conservative bunch of teachers and school administrators would not only put up with her antics so long, but also praise her for a job well done from time to time. Basically, the script just wings it in the hope of some ribald and raunchy humor within the sheltered existence of a school for youth. Sadly for us, there are few laughs to be had, and those that do evoke chuckles come mostly at its expense. With few laughs and fewer surprises, this low-rent attempt at an envelope-pushing romp results only in a head-scratcher as to just what kind of movie they were trying to make, and for what audience.
©2011 Vince Leo