Bad Teacher (2011)

Bad Teacher (2011) — The following article originally appeared on on 24 June 2011.

The 1994 Jim Carrey film The Mask introduced the world to a hot young bombshell named Cameron Diaz. She was in a few more movies (my favorites being Danny Boyle’s A Life Less Ordinary and her cameo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) before she really hit it big in 1997 with the Farrelly Brothers’ “gross-out” romantic comedy There’s Something About Mary (the signature image of which was Diaz with… oddly styled hair). While her popularity has kept up over the past decade thanks mostly to franchises like the Charlie’s Angels movies and the Shrek films, the actual quality of her work seemed to peak in the late 90s. Last year’s Knight and Day kind of typifies the bulk of work her work: likable enough but not particularly impressive.

Just by virtue of the title, I’m guessing that Bad Teacher is meant to evoke Terry Zwigoff’s 2003 film Bad Santa. They’re both about substance abusing misanthropes comically ill-suited for their jobs dealing with children. Except there’s no heist plot, but whatever. Diaz plays Elizabeth Halsey, a seventh grade teacher. At the beginning of the film she is leaving after a year of teaching so she can marry her rich fiancé (Nat Faxon). Unfortunately, he wises up to her gold-digging nature and she finds herself single and back working at John Addams Middle School teaching… um, I guess English. She does VERY little actual teaching in the movie, preferring to show her students movies about inspirational teachers like Stand and Deliver, Lean On Me, Dangerous Minds, and (breaking somewhat with the theme) Scream. She comes to school drunk or stoned quite often and doesn’t even bother learning the students’ names. Her co-worker, Amy (Lucy Punch from Hot Fuzz), tries to reach out to her but eventually writes her off as an awful teacher. Punch (awesome surname, by the way) is good as Elizabeth’s nemesis. She really shines when the do-gooder exterior peels back to reveal Amy’s vindictive side.

Her fortunes, so to speak, change when she meets the new substitute Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake). Not only is he played by a handsome pop star, but his character is the heir to a watch-making fortune. Elizabeth sees her chance to snag a rich one but Scott’s over-the-top sincerity and niceness make it difficult for the crass and decidedly un-virtuous Elizabeth to woo him. Of course, squeaky-clean Amy is the perfect match for Scott as they have a very compatible brand of dorkiness. Elizabeth is not without a suitor of her own however as gym teacher Russell (Jason Segel) is set on wooing her. Not being able to see past paychecks, Elizabeth prefers to go after Scott. Timberlake has proven himself as an actor in Alpha Dog and especially The Social Network, but he doesn’t quite sell Scott’s goofy naïveté. He demonstrates a natural aptitude for sketch comedy whenever he appears on Saturday Night Live, but sketches and a feature length movie are different things entirely. In a sketch you can rely on a quirk to carry you through. In a movie, you actually need to create a character. Jason Segel is a good example of that. He doesn’t have a lot of screen time for a romantic interest character, but you get a sense of who he is in the scenes he does have (of course that character seems to the same one Segel often plays).

The film casts John Michael Higgins (Best In Show, Fired Up!) as the principal. There’s nothing really to the character although they make him obsessed with dolphins. The film doesn’t quite know how to use him, I think. That seems to be the problem with the film in general, actually. It has a lot of great ingredients but doesn’t seem quite sure how to use them. Dave (Gruber) Allen (I don’t know why his nickname is in parentheses instead of quotes but it’s always written that way) who was so great on Freaks and Geeks doesn’t really do anything in this movie at all. I’m unclear why they even cast him. Thomas Lennon (Reno 911) does better in a small role. The biggest wasted potential in the movie comes from the students. There are a couple small subplots involving the students, but they don’t really amount to much. One scene, where Diaz helps out a lovelorn student (Matthew J. Evans) in a rather unprofessional but oddly sweet way, works well enough. Another student subplot involving an overachiever (Kaitlyn Dever) goes absolutely nowhere. To me the humor of Bad Teacher should mostly concern how inappropriate it is for someone like Elizabeth to work with children. Since the movie just focuses on the adults a lot of that potential is lost.

What works in the movie? Well for its many flaws I did keep chuckling throughout. The only real standard by which you can judge a comedy is if it makes you laugh, so I guess that makes this a winner? It doesn’t feel like one though. Cameron Diaz does carry this movie pretty well. Even though the movie’s not great, she fully inhabits her character so kudos to her. The film is directed by Jake Kasdan, son of Raiders of the Lost Ark writer and The Big Chill director Lawrence Kasdan. Kasdan the younger has done several things I like before. He directed episodes of the great-but-prematurely-cancelled series Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared, and Grosse Pointe and the movies Zero Effect, Orange County, and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Bad Teacher does not belong alongside those films. I hope Kasdan rebounds on his next outing. I paid to see this movie, but I got an article out of it. If in a few months Bad Teacher is on Netflix Instant or on HBO/premium cable (it would be pointless watching it edited for TV) by all means watch it and you might be amused. It’s not worth seeing in theaters.

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