A film review by Craig J. Koban June 28, 2011

BAD TEACHER j
j

2011, R, 92 mins.

 

Elizabeth Halsey: Cameron Diaz / Scott Delacorte: Justin Timberlake / Russell Gettis: Jason Segel / Amy Squirrel: Lucy Punch / Principal John: Michael Higgins / Lynn Davies: Phyllis Smith

Directed by Jake Kasden /Written by Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg.

There is a fundamental difference between a daring comedy and a dirty comedy.  Daring comedies are often scathing satires that have ambition with the sort of decrepit levels they go to for laughs.  Dirty comedies are just that: filthy mouthed and minded.  Jake Kasdan’s BAD TEACHER desperately wants to be a daring comedy, but it struggles to do so an unavoidably just emerges as a dirty one.  Considering Kasdan’s (son of Lawrence) past track record of solid comedies (like ZERO EFFECT and ORANGE COUNTY) BAD TEACHER is a clunky, incardinated, and undisciplined misfire. 

Comparisons of this film to BAD SANTA are inevitable, most likely because they share the word “bad” in their respective titles and they both contain lead characters that are borderline redemption-free losers.  The difference, though, with Billy Bob Thornton’s character in BAD SANTA was that he was almost haplessly pathetic, so much so that you started to almost feel sorry for what a sad sack of shit he was.  That’s the main problem with BAD TEACHER: its educator (played in a game performance by Cameron Diaz, refreshingly playing against her stock type of sunny and easily likeable personas) is that she is so utterly repellent that you never once grow to like to hate her.  She is so wholeheartedly charmless, vulgar, uncultured, and uncaring of just about everyone and everything around her that you never develop a rooting interest in her at all.  She’s just, I dunno...a valueless bitch…and not much more. 

Diaz plays Elizabeth Halsey, who is probably the worst on-screen teacher I’ve seen in a film since Bradley Cooper’s middle school instructor stole his class' field trip money to help fund his buddy’s bachelor party in Vegas in THE HANGOVER.  Elizabeth is slumming in her 30’s, shallow, infantile, lazy, heartless, self-centered, and completely uncensored.   She is also a schemer and a manipulative gold digger.  During the opening of the film she kisses her teaching job goodbye, mostly because she is about to wed her very rich fiancé.  However, his mother steps in and correctly deduces that Elizabeth only loves her son for his money.  They confront her and Elizabeth steadfastly denies the accusation.  He quickly retorts by asking her when is his birthday: when she feebly forgets that it is the day of their confrontation, she tries to make up for it by giving him a $37 gift card to a restaurant.  Actually, she is re-gifting the card: she was given it as a going-away present from her school’s teaching faculty. 

Needless to say, her former husband-to-be gives Elizabeth the boot and she desperately makes an effort to find an affluent new sugar daddy.  The only thing she requires – in her estimation – is a nice new set of tataas via a costly $10,000 surgery.   Down on her luck and with virtually no money in her account, she returns as a junior high teacher at the school she just left and, within her very first day, she comes to class apparently hungover, under-slept, and unwilling to teach the youth of tomorrow.  Her first day of education involves publicly criticizing the cookies that a keener student’s mother made for her in front of the entire class, followed by her showing the students STAND AND DELIVER.  She later follows that film with screenings of LEAN ON ME and DANGEROUS MINDS.  Something tells me that none of those films are on the curriculum. 

Elizabeth sees a spark of optimism in her otherwise miserable situation: she comes across an attractive, if not a bit geeky and preppy, new substitute teacher named Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake) that, as luck with have it, is totally loaded.  Her attempts to woe him are stunted by the efforts of a fellow teacher named, yes, Miss Squirrel (Lucy Punch) a red-haired and aggressively – almost antagonistically – nice and pleasant minded colleague that’s so annoyingly and fundamentally G-rated and pleasant that you’re not really sure whether you should hate her or Elizabeth more.  Nonetheless, Miss Squirrel starts to battle Elizabeth for the affections of Mr. Delecorte and Elizabeth becomes so blind in her mission to court the sub that she ignores the obvious flirtatious pick up attempts of a kindly, soft-spoken, but deceptively with-it gym teacher named Russell (Jason Segal). 

On a positive, BAD TEACHER is an unapologetically R-rated raunch fest with no heart or scruples  A sanitized, PG-13 version of this material was probably enticing to make it see the light of day with a wider audience, so I can appreciate Kasdan and screenwriters Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky (of TV’s THE OFFICE) willingness to not sugarcoat anything.  There is very little attempt made to make Elizabeth anything less than the most dislikeable character of the year, and Diaz certainly deserves credit for making her ill-tempered and hotheaded teacher convincingly...uh...bad.    

The other performers are decent as well, especially Segal, who can coast by considerably on his laid back charm and sweet disposition.  I also liked John Michael Higgins as a ragin' dolphin-aholic (seriously!) and school principal.  Timberlake in particular makes his role’s overt sincerity a riot all the way through the film.  He’s funny because he is able to harness Delecorte’s dweebiness to hysterical effect, but also because – like good on-screen comedians – he’s not afraid to make a total ass of himself to get a laugh.  Just consider a moment with him in what has to be the first fully clothed sex scene in movie history.  Dry humping has rarely been taken to such amusingly obsessive – and creepy levels – as it is here. 

There are some other spirited sight gags too, like a recurring shot of an unidentified young male student with one of those blank, open mouthed, and incredulous zombified stares that relays how little interest he has in his teacher’s comments.  Yet, too many of the film’s other would-be hysterical moments lack hearty laughs and oftentimes come off desperately (like a scene where Elizabeth comes out with short shorts, a cut off top, and a willingness to get wet and sultry at a school car wash: one student gets an erection while watching her…hardy har).  Even other characters, like Punch’s Miss Squirrel, are so uncompromisingly one note and caricaturized that you laugh less and less with them because, frankly, you just get weirded out by them. 

BAD TEACHER also thinks it's much more cutting edge with its underlining material than it really is: basically, we have an alcoholic, drug addicted, racist, oversexed, and potty mouthed woman that is in charged of a junior high classroom of pre-teens…and that’s it.  Yes, a horrible, nasty, and sleazy adult that should in no way be even around children has to supervise over their scholastic needs.  Lazily portraying a misanthropic character engaging in wall-to-wall, morally bankrupted misbehavior is not enough to win smart audiences over.  The script seems to sputter in terms of finding ways to make Diaz an agreeably disagreeable anti-hero.  Then there is the film’s stunning lack of logic: There is rarely – if ever – a moment in the film when you believe that a woman like Elizabeth would ever last more than a day on the job as a teacher.  It is a requirement of this film’s somewhat imbecilic script that all of her depraved misdeeds are all but ignored and unseen by the powers that be. 

One last thing: BAD TEACHER is almost shameful for how, in the end, it dreadfully tries to have Elizabeth perform an emotional and professional about-face, thereby allowing audiences to warm over to her right before the end credits.  That seems completely disingenuous to the rest of the film, not to mention that it makes the script look all the more dutifully contrived.  There is a searing black comedy of ill manners lurking deep within BAD TEACHER, but alas all we get on the surface is dirty minded posturing.  

  H O M E