By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
The easily offended should cut class and steer clear, while seekers of the outrageous may want to grab a desk near the front of the classroom.
Bad Teacher is an unfinished symphony of bad taste and inverted values, best enjoyed as a satire of the inspirational-teacher genre.
The title alone tells you that this hard-edged comedy wants to do for teachers what Bad Santa did for Santas. It’s obviously inviting comparison, so here goes…
Unfortunately, there’s just something about the movie built around There’s Something About Mary‘s Cameron Diaz that doesn’t go far enough. This despite the fact that her suburban-Illinois middle school teacher brings alcohol and pot to her classroom, where she ignores her seventh-grade charges as if they’re not even there.
Bad Teacher is a gleefully dark, woman-behaving-badly comedy that centers on Diaz’s Elizabeth Halsey, a foul-mouthed, money-obsessed, self-centered, shallow, and unrepentantly apathetic junior high school teacher.
In other words, that “Teacher of the Year” award is at least slightly out of reach.
Teaching isn’t exactly her calling; in fact, she’s calling for a replacement because she would like nothing more than to get the heck out of the education racket — which is just what it is the way she plays it, sleeping during class while her students watch good-teacher flicks (like Stand and Deliver, Lean On Me, and Dangerous Minds) that demonstrate what her classroom would be like if she actually cared at all about her students.
Recently dumped by her wealthy fiancé, she begins to woo an independently wealthy colleague, Scott Delacourte, a substitute teacher played by Justin Timberlake, for whom Elizabeth is willing not only to pretend that she has turned over a new leaf as a dedicated educator, but that she’s willing to transform her body with breast-enhancement surgery.
This pits her against a well-loved, prim and proper but lethally passive-aggressive teacher named Amy Squirrel, the social studies faculty member played by Lucy Punch, who happens to be dating Scott, and with whom Elizabeth is also in competition because the teacher with the highest class average on the standardized tests is to receive a bonus.
The fourth angle in this rambling wreck of an antic-romantic rectangle is sardonic gym teacher Russell Gettis, played by Jason Segel, who is interested in Elizabeth and wise to her game but is less offended by her than attracted to her.
Director Jake Kasdan (Orange County; Walk Hard: The Dewey Coxe Story; The TV Set), also the executive producer, keeps the tone mean-spirited and resists the temptation to redeem his protagonist in the conventional manner.
Diaz, who seems to be having a great time, plays against her natural on-screen sweetness, managing not to alienate the audience despite the absence of any empathetic or sympathetic qualities that would goose a real rooting interest.
As for her supporting ensemble, they shine, Timberlake and Punch in their showy scenes, and Segel in a slyly understated way in the film’s only grounded-in-reality performance.
Like a rushed homework assignment, the screenplay by Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, although appropriately rude and crude, feels incomplete somehow, as if the characters and situations haven’t been fully thought out and followed through on.
But the guffaws come anyway as the film earns its credentials as a pitch-black comedy. So the primary item on the syllabus — making us laugh — is accomplished.
Which is why we’ll assign a passing grade of 2½ stars out of 4 for this cynical and sporadically funny, R-rated faculty romp. Bad Teacher, good movie.
More Bill Wine movie reviews