Mark Reviews Movies

Bad Teacher


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Jake Kasdan

Cast: Cameron Diaz, Lucy Punch, Jason Segel, Justin Timberlake, Phyllis Smith, John Michael Higgins

MPAA Rating: R (for sexual content, nudity, language and some drug use)

Running Time: 1:32

Release Date: 6/24/11

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Review by Mark Dujsik | June 23, 2011

Bad Teacher exists in a moral vacuum, where no one is fully good and even those who are relatively innocent are so innocuously bland that we can't help but sort of pity them. That's one way to make material like this work, because once we see someone who's an example of a decent human being in a movie that concentrates on the rottenest of the bunch, deep down, we're wondering why the latter can't be more like the former.

The movie's protagonist is a pot-smoking, heavy-drinking, self-centered, superficial middle school teacher who educates by putting on movies set in schools (Running out of inspirational-teacher movies, she throws in a horror movie, because, after all, it's set in a high school) before plopping down in her chair and sleeping off last night's binge. There's something deviously rewarding about watching a person, who flaunts her apathy with such wild abandon in everyone's face, get away with so much simply because she doesn't care one way or another if she's caught. It's not that we like her, but, deeper down than the place that would rather watch the nice people, there's something that admires someone who doesn't apologize for her mistakes.  Besides, she doesn't think they're faults in the first place.

Her name is Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz, fine enough in a role with limited extremes of hung-over and indifferent), and she's a gold digger. Her dream is to marry a rich man who will take care of her, and by "take care of" her, she means that he'll let her spend as much money as she wants. The story starts with her goal nearly coming to fruition, until her fiancé's mother steps in and points out that maybe a woman who spends $16,000 in a month isn't in it for love. It's not revenge when she lies to her fellow faculty members that she broke off the engagement after she caught her ex—in order of the telling—in bed with a man, in the act of bestiality, and practicing incest; it's all about perception, namely ensuring that public opinion of her is flawless.

Elizabeth has spent her life in the study of wealthy men and has observed that breast size plays an important part in their choosing of wives. Her next step, then, is to get breast implants, though the surgery costs $10,000. The work must come soon, since the new substitute teacher Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake) comes from a well-to-do family of watchmakers, and his eye is drifting away from Elizabeth and toward the school's insufferably perky teacher Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch).

Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg's script manages to get some reasonable comic mileage out of Elizabeth's conniving, manipulative methods to earn the cash for her surgery by any means necessary. A parent-teacher conference quickly becomes an opportunity for her to collect bribes from parents looking to insure that their children get solid grades. Certainly the very mention of a school-sponsored car wash says all we need to know of an imminent scene in which Elizabeth dresses in scanty clothes, spraying water all over herself and sliding across the hoods of cars—a variation of a scene that's been done to death with nothing new brought to the table. At least it focuses on the predictable reactions of onlookers—crashing cars, wide-eyed looks from unsuspecting students, and a gratuitous close-up of a pair of bulging gym shorts—though that's not saying much.

Where the screenplay mostly falters is populating the school with unproductive supporting characters, leaving some of the actors grasping in search of humor from their roles. It's most apparent with Scott, whose opinion on matters as simple as whether or not he likes sharks varies depending on how the wind is blowing (They can cause so much pain and yet are so majestic). Timberlake plays him as a generic goody two-shoes, as that's all that is required. The school's principal's (John Michael Higgins) defining characteristic is that he likes dolphins, and there's a subplot involving a hopeless student's (Matthew J. Evans) crush on a girl in his class (Kathryn Newton) that encapsulates the extent of the students' roles. Jason Segel's sarcastic delivery as the gym teacher is amusing in his limited role, and Punch guarantees that Elizabeth appears the lesser of two evils with Amy's transition to wild-eyed, holier-than-thou schemer.

Director Jake Kasdan maintains a cheerfully cynical tone while keeping it from becoming outright misanthropic, but those side players become far too important as Bad Teacher progresses to be so broad and ill-defined, especially Segel and Timberlake's, who represent a choice for Elizabeth. Yes, the story has a half-hearted redemption in store for her, but at least it's a minor one.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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