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Rapid Review: Bad Teacher

June 24, 2011

For the record, since I think I’m more than a little bit biased when it comes to movies about education (being a teacher), I think I am one of the good ones.  In the “Movieverse”, however, there are basically two types of educators: those who are paragons of virtue and inspiration (see: Mr. Holland’s Opus, To Sir, With Love) and those who are masters of cruelty and ineptitude (see: any John Hughes movie, Election, The Faculty).   This is especially true in comedies, because, let’s face it, an inspirational teacher is rarely one who can crack a good naughty joke (notable exception –The School of Rock).

those awful questions on the blackboard are more than enough to convince me she's a BAD teacher...

Bad Teacher stars Cameron Diaz as the titular character.  Right away, we have an interesting casting choice.  Diaz can be a decent comedic actress when given the right material.  Diaz is also at her best when her characters are a bit “mussed” up physically and a bit risqué mentally, and I mean that in the nicest way possible.  Someone that beautiful is only believable and empathetic when they have some MAJOR flaws.   Elizabeth (Diaz’s character) has fatal flaws aplenty in this film.  She abuses drugs, drinks, has a potty mouth that would put most HBO protagonists to shame, and has essentially no morals to speak of.   One would think there would be some kind of motivation for this behavior somewhere in her past (paging Dr. Freud), but the movie doesn’t seem to think giving her any kind of rationale for her pathological ways is necessary.    If you are going to have a character this despicable, at least give them a decent back story (daddy issues?  ugly duckling?). 

Elizabeth’s one goal in life is to escape the drudgery that she perceives is the low-paid, humiliating life of a teacher and marry a rich guy and live happily ever after.  Ah, the Great American Dream otherwise known as the “Mrs.” Degree.  After getting dumped (one can’t imagine why no decent guy would consider this she-beast a catch of the first order) by her fiancée, Elizabeth has no choice but to return to the career she despises and do as little as possible while figuring out her next game plan.  Opportunity arises when she decides that she’s going to take a stab (luckily only figuratively in this case) at going after a wealthy substitute named Scott (Justin Timberlake).  Unfortunately, he’s shortly claimed by another fellow teacher, the unfortunately named Amy Squirrel.     Ms. Squirrel pushes all of  Elizabeth’s buttons.  She’s cute, has a large chest, and her students get strong state test scores.  Amy and Elizabeth are two sides of the same coin.  Amy is so good and earnest that she’s also obnoxious and obsessive.  Elizabeth is so lazy and ineffective that she’s also sleazy and cruel.  The good news is that Ms. Squirrel is played by a genius of a comedic actress by the name of Lucy Punch.  More about her later.

There’s also a hapless gym teacher by the name of Russell (played by Jason Segel), who for some strange reason is genuinely interested in Elizabeth and attempts at various intervals to step in and seduce her into falling for a guy who can barely afford the upkeep on a modest shack.   All this adds up to a strange love quadrangle in the middle of  what wants to be a raunchy comedy a la The Hangover or Bridesmaids, but doesn’t have the guts or the ammunition to go far enough to make it work.

I am REALLY going to fire my agent...

Director Jake Kasdan, along with writers Gene Stupinsky and Lee Eisenberg, clearly want to make this movie irreverent and gutsy, but much like last summer’s Dinner for Schmucks, it just doesn’t cut it.   You can’t stand on the edge of the cliff and look longingly over it.  Sometimes you just have to close your eyes and jump.  The setting is perhaps a hinderance here.  How do you relentlessly mock teenagers and a whole profession of adults who care about them?   With a more skilled screenplay I have no doubt that it is possible to skewer and entertain without stripping the situation of its heart and soul.    There aren’t anything BUT bad teachers and bad administrators in this film.  It’s no wonder someone like Elizabeth is able to go forth and conquer with few consequences.  Had the creators taken this to the extreme, it might have worked.   As it stands, though,  the last 20 minutes of the movie basically try to give hearts to tin men who would be better off with brains instead. 

Most of the kids aren’t even a factor in this film.  How can you have a film about teachers where students are merely background props?  Where are the amusing stereotypes and cliques with their minions?  The few kids who are known by name are neither funny nor endearing.  Comedic opportunities are glimpsed, then lost.  Alas, Bad Teacher isn’t the remedy for the common teacher movie that I keep looking for.

All the actors attempt to do what they can, but some of them are more successful than others at stealing a few laughs.  It’s unfortunate that so many of the zingers come at the expense of these hapless middle school kids without leading up to an honest laugh payoff.   What’s disappointing is that Bad Teacher tries so hard to be ruthless that it leaves the audience wondering who’s more immature here:  the obnoxious but bland kids or the adults that are constantly trying to one up them?  In reality, most kids usually have a reason for being so incomprehensibly awful.  The adults in this movie lack such an excuse.

giving middle school kids everywhere even more reasons to hate gym class

Diaz has moments where her comedic timing and twisty face shine through, but her character tries so hard to be bad that it becomes exhausting.  Timberlake has shown he can be skilled in short comedic bursts, and he’s utilized here in that same vein.  Of all the actors, though, it is Brit comic actress Lucy Punch who manages to steal every scene.  As Ms.  Squirrel, a well-respected but over-the-top teacher who is trying to prevent the title character from waltzing away with her man, she is zany and luminous at the same time. 

Overall, Bad Teacher has a few giggles and some “oh, no she didn’t” moments.  Still, I kept waiting for one of those embarrassing belly laughs that causes tears and snorts and other bodily reactions that only truly awesome comedy can inspire.   Unfortunately, to experience those full-body laughs so far this summer at the cineplex, I guess I’ll just have to see Bridesmaids again.  Not a bad thought, at that…

Overall Grade:  C-

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