Bad Teacher (United States, 2011)

June 23, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Bad Teacher Poster

Bad Teacher takes a delicious premise and leaves a sour aftertaste. Despite the promise of something nasty and cutting, the film turns out to be as edgy as a dull razor with limp "raunchy" comedy and an unwillingness to push envelopes. The concept titillates - an oversexed, drug-abusing, foul-mouthed, doesn't-give-a-shit woman put in charge of a classroom - but the result is drab, obvious, and disappointing. Despite the existence of Bad Santa as an obvious template, Bad Teacher doesn't want to be dark (or at least not too dark); it wants to be naughty enough to get an R-rated but not so naughty that it will shock viewers. The product is akin to a mediocre '80s sex comedy (with minimal nudity) and "daring" is a descriptor only the most naïve and puritanical would employ.

Cameron Diaz's Elizabeth Halsey is the title character. It's an open question why anyone would hire her to teach junior high (although her legs might have something to do with it), but we're supposed to accept the premise that the Worst Teacher in the Civilized World is somehow skating by without anyone noticing her shortcomings except her nutty co-worker, Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch). The reason Elizabeth needs a job is because her ex-fiancé figured out that she's a gold-digger and canceled the wedding. So Elizabeth is out to find a new sugar daddy and, as a means of enhancing her appeal, she has decided to get a boob job. Finding a spare $10,000 is proving difficult. For Mr. Moneybags, she has set her sights on geeky substitute teacher Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), whose family is rich. To that end, she goes to war with Amy, who is dating Scott, and ignores the advances of gym teacher Russell Gettis (Jason Segel).

In Bad Santa, Billy Bob Thornton played an unrepentant misanthrope. Even the "sunny" conclusion is designed more as a send-up of feel-good endings that an instance of genuine redemption. Would that a similar approach had been used with Elizabeth Halsey. Despite her obvious personality defects, the screenplay doesn't want to make her too unlikeable. And therein lies the problem. For Bad Teacher to work as the raunchy black comedy it wants to be, Elizabeth has to be the educational equivalent of a nymphomaniac Nurse Ratched. But the filmmakers want viewers to kinda sorta like her. They want her to be appealing, more of an anti-heroine than a villain. It doesn't work; she comes across as a lame caricature.

Elizabeth is surrounded with equally cartoonish characters. Amy is the typical goody two-shoes whose sunny exterior hides an interior ugliness. Scott is a teenager in an adult's body; his idea of hot sex is dry humping. Principal Snur (John Michael Higgins) is a moron with a dolphin fetish. Gym teacher Russell is the only "normal" individual in the film, resulting in his seeming out-of-place.

Diaz is unconvincing as the slutty, hungover Elizabeth. She wears the clothes and spouts the profanity, but I never bought the character, even in a comedy/parody sense. I am forced to wonder whether the original script was a lot harder and nastier but was softened when Diaz came on board. It's hard to say whether Bad Teacher fails because the original screenplay didn't take enough chances or because agent/studio interference forced director Jake Kasdan and the writers to emasculate the narrative to avoid what happened to Observe and Report. The supporting cast is mostly solid, with Punch and Timberlake embracing the vapidity of their characters and Jason Segel bringing elements of warmth and humor to Russell.

Despite the movie's overall weakness, there are isolated scenes that work, such as the car wash and the sequence in which Elizabeth devises an unusual punishment/reward system involving a dodge ball. The comedy is tepid, however. A decade ago, it might have been deemed risky. Today, with so many films (like The Hangover Part II) pushing the R-rating to its limits, even Bad Teacher's most outrageously gauche humor feels safe. The movie had an opportunity to do for the classroom what Bad Santa did for Christmas, but the filmmakers' courage went on summer vacation.

Bad Teacher (United States, 2011)

Director: Jake Kasdan
Cast: Cameron Diaz, Lucy Punch, Jason Segel, Justin Timberlake, Phyllis Smith, John Michael Higgins
Screenplay: Gene Stupniksky & Lee Eisenberg
Cinematography: Alar Kivilo
Music: Michael Andrews
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Run Time: 1:32
U.S. Release Date: 2011-06-24
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1