June 25, 2011

Bad Teacher

Note: Since I panned Bad Teacher four years ago, I have done a complete 180. I think it's a smart and hilarious movie, and I actually have watched several times since first seeing it in theaters four years ago. The fact that I was so wrong about this movie has been weighing on me, so for the reader who may happen across this review, please know that I now feel very warmly toward Bad Teacher. Cameron Diaz is one of the funniest actors working today, and this movie is one more reason she's always worth watching.


In Bad Teacher, Elizabeth (Cameron Diaz) wants to marry a wealthy man she can glom onto for financial security. Her fiance dumps her, and in order to pay for a boob job so she can attract a new man, she goes back to teaching middle school English. She doesn't exactly teach, though. She mainly pops in a movie like Stand and Deliver or Dangerous Minds (movies about teachers who change students' lives) to wile away the time. Unlike the teachers in the movies she shows to her students, however, Elizabeth typically spends the school day hung over, sleeping on her desk like one of the teenagers she's supposed to be teaching.

This movie might be a spoof of that ridiculous genre of teachers-as-world-changers films. It has moments where it tries to do that. But the writers (the screenplay is credited to Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky) didn't really think it through that far. They apparently had one thing in mind: having Cameron Diaz say and do things that no teacher could get away with in real life. While this is funny, it also wears thin when you realize that the movie isn't going in any particularly clear or interesting direction.

She meets a potential new mate in Scott (Justin Timberlake), a fresh-faced new substitute who hails from a wealthy family. (They have a wristwatch dynasty.) Scott seems too good to be true, but his character never develops to the point where we understand what his deal is. He starts dating rival teacher Amy Squirrell (Lucy Punch), who makes all teachers look bad (not to mention irritating, over-zealous, deluded, and out-of-touch) and arouses Elizabeth's competitive spirit. Meanwhile, Elizabeth balks at the advances of the friendly gym teacher (Jason Segel), who may be kind of a slob but is at his core a pretty good guy.

That's pretty much the story. Bad Teacher runs out of direction before it begins, and you enjoy some of the comic set-ups that unfold, but the whole time you wish for a better movie. You wish the writing were more structured because it could give the cast the chance to fly comically. As it is, they merely carry the dead weight of an unimaginative script. Cameron Diaz has always possessed a strong ability to relate to the audience, but she's marginalized by her own character in Bad Teacher. When she rolls her eyes at some inanity that's happening to her, we're rolling ours too. When she reacts with hostility to the stupidity of her students' papers, we're totally with her. But the movie hasn't developed her character, her relationship with the students, or the students' characters, enough for that aspect of the story to really work. The movie juggles several different loosely connected plot lines and then mashes them together in an attempt to bring continuity and coherence. There's also no force in Bad Teacher. It doesn't build up the way it should, and you can sense that it's going nowhere fast pretty early early on. The lack of comic suspense makes every scene feel like a sitcom sketch with no payoff (the writers work on The Office).

As a comedy, it's funny but in a dumb way. You'll feel like a jackass for laughing, or maybe a vulgarian, but you'll probably laugh anyway. Just not as much or has hard as you laugh in Bridesmaids, which is a movie that, despite its predictable plot, is one of the funniest comedies of the year. Bridesmaids had a cast that was allowed to bring the comic scenes to a full-on boil. Here, things only simmer if they ever get heated up at all. 

It's not enough for a movie to be dirty or for it to revel in badness. There needs to be some reason to root for the protagonist, even if she's on the level of an anti-hero. This is the problem of The Hangover and Sideways. You couldn't really be on the side of the main characters because they were self-centered pricks. The boys who wrote Bad Teacher have constructed a woman after their own heart in some ways. She's mean and crude and calculating but she's also lazy and disinterested, to the point that you wonder how she motivates herself to stoop even to the level of whoring herself out for a husband. It's like a combination of some Victorian marriage comedy and Sex and the City, without the witty dialogue or the prudish morality. Bad Teacher is too deflated to resonate the way it should have. Cameron Diaz carries it the movie, or maybe drags it, but I kept wanting more from her, and I knew she was capable of giving more if the makers had known what they were doing. I wanted them to use the smart side of Cameron Diaz. She was so good in In Her Shoes, where she played a similarly dysfunctional person. She pulls off the snarky bitchy thing well, but you keep wondering why her character has such low-brow ambitions in life. We're never given enough to justify or understand this.

And don't even think about seeing Bad Teacher if you want some kind of a morality tale. It's not out to instruct. That was probably the only consistent thing about the movie. While Elizabeth violates a lot of ethics rules with a shocking level of impunity, to punish her would have shown a lack of conviction. I guess they figured, hell, if you're gonna do it, do it. If this movie is about anything, it's about rooting for the heels of society who cut corners and don't give a crap about how they affect others. To give Elizabeth some kind of miraculous change of heart at the end would have been a fraud. Elizabeth is the disingenuous type. She's not about to have that blinded-by-the-light moment where everything turns around for good.

The makers of Bad Teacher certainly don't care about Elizabeth being respected or good at her job. She's really just an outlet for anyone who was ever been a teacher (or maybe just anyone who ever hated his job) to do all the wrong things and not get caught.

Directed by Jake Kasdan. With John Michael Higgins, Phyllis Smith, Eric Stonestreet, Thomas Lennon, and Molly Shannon.

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