By Linc Leifeste | June 24, 2011
Director: Jake Kasdan
Writers: Gene Stupnitsky, Lee Eisenberg
Starring: Cameron Diaz, Jason Segel, Justin Timberlake, Lucy Punch, Phyllis Smith, John Michael Higgins
High art Bad Teacher is not. Heck, it’s not even low art. There are no morals to be gleaned from the story. It’s not an innovative or creative piece of film-making. At just over 90 minutes, it’s a slight comedy that’s more a series of set pieces, some funnier than others, than a unified work. It’s crude, crass, innapropriate and a lot of the humor is probably geared towards a 14 year old male audience. But, all of that said, on the most basic of levels Bad Teacher is a success. It made the audience laugh.
Reminding me of 2003’s Bad Santa more than anything, this film takes the same approach of subverting an authority figure for laughs but not nearly as effectively. Maybe it’s that we’ve all experienced a shoddy teacher or two in our public education experience or maybe it’s the never-ending stream of news stories about the teacher busted bedding their students but our poorly paid public teachers just don’t tread the same venerated ground as Santa Claus and Christmas.
The movie opens with Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) gladly giving up her middle school English teaching job after a single year only to discover that her wealthy fiance and meal-ticket has finally seen through her lecherous ways and is sending her packing. So, much to her dismay and to the detriment of her unfortunate students, it’s back to her teaching job for another year. Her teaching methodology, such as it is, is basically to show movies while trying to catch a nap at her desk but to her credit her movie choices do reflect an educational theme (Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds).
Elizabeth has returned to the teaching field freshly motivated the second time around, although her inspiration is not to help form young impressionable minds but instead to save up enough money for a boob job, as she’s convinced that larger breasts are the only thing holding her back from achieving her dream of becoming a trophy wife. Diaz’s Halsey is without a single redeeming quality that I can think of, unless a sculpted body can be considered redeeming. She’s manipulative, self-centered, materialistic, perpetually stoned and also a lot of fun to watch as Diaz parades brazen sexuality and off-color humor across the screen.
When new substitute teacher Scott Delacorte (an underutilized Justin Timberlake) shows up wearing an expensive wristwatch, Elizabeth spies a potential new cash cow and soon the chase is on. Of course this puts her in direct competition with the perky, perfectionist, passive-aggressive teacher across the hall, Amy Squirrel (played pitch-perfectly by Lucy Punch). Convinced that she needs a breast upgrade more than ever to secure Scott’s affections, Elizabeth has soon hatched a plan to steal a copy of the state’s standardized test answers to assure that her students have the highest test scores. This in turn will land her the yearly cash prize that is perpetually awarded to the over-achieving Squirrel.
Through it all, Elizabeth is being mildly courted by laid-back gym teacher Russell Gettis (Jason Segel). But as she makes clear to him early on, gym teachers just don’t do it for her. Barely worth her contempt, unless he’s offering up some of his pot (which she begrudgingly agrees to smoke with him), Russell isn’t dissuaded from seeing Elizabeth as an objection worthy of his affections. Segel is uncharacteristically restrained in his performance, looking overweight and at times barely engaged, but in the process manages to turn in the most naturalistic and likeable performance in a cast filled with over the top characters.
Ultimately, it’s the supporting cast that winds up providing much of the comedic punch. Phyllis Smith makes a welcome appearance reprising her role from The Office as a painfully shy and inept teacher who’s smitten by Elizabeth’s bold insubordination. John Michael Higgins turns in his usually reliable performance as painfully earnest Principal Wally Snur. Dave “Gruber” Allen never fails to amuse as burned-out hippie teacher Sandy Pinkus. And Thomas Lennon makes a delightful appearance as the mundane official that Elizabeth must seduce in order to obtain the standardized test score answers.
Bad Teacher works best when viewed as thoughtless entertainment, 90 minutes of escapist laughs. I’m sure there will be those who will rightly lament the female stereotypes exhibited by the female characters of this film who relentlessly compete against each other and manipulatively control men for material gain. Not that men fare any better in this film. The fact that the “good guy” wants this woman at all and only gets the girl after her other schemes have failed doesn’t paint a flattering image of men. Ultimately I don’t think the makers of the film are too concerned with social commentary of any kind. I think they have a much simpler aim, to entertain. And sometimes that’s enough.