“Bad Teacher” so desperately wants to be “Bad Santa” for teachers, but it doesn’t even come close. Despite some good laughs sprinkled throughout, the movie is a surprising bore with few surprises up its sleeve. You can see things coming long in advance, and the punch line deflates very quickly. Cameron Diaz, Jason Segel, Justin Timberlake and a talented cast do their best with an underwritten script, but the movie wears out its welcome within the first ten minutes.
Cameron Diaz stars as the bad teacher of the title, Elizabeth Halsey. She is dumped by her rich fiancé at the start as he figures out she’s with him only for his money, and this forces Elizabeth to go back to her teaching job which she claims is “the only thing I’m good at.” Her teaching style consists of showing her students movies like “Stand and Deliver” and “Lean on Me” (at least she has taste) before moving on to the R-rated stuff. While they watch, she’s either nursing a hangover or working towards one with tiny little bottles of Jim Beam whiskey stashed in her desk.
The thing with movies like “Bad Santa” or even “School of Rock” is that as deplorable as the lead characters are in their actions and demeanor, there was something about them that made you want to keep watching. Whether they were likable or not, they were interesting. Billy Bob Thornton succeeded in “Bad Santa” in painting a complex portrait of a man who was as pitiful as he was cruel to others. With “School of Rock,” Jack Black goes from being a selfish oaf to learning about himself through the musical talents of the class he substitute teaches. What these guys are doing is bad, but you still can’t help but like them a little.
That brings us to a big problem with “Bad Teacher;” Elizabeth Halsey is not an interesting character. She is essentially a shallow woman looking to manipulate those around her to get what she wants. Through schemes like school car washes and “extra tutoring,” Elizabeth works towards raising money to get breast implants (as if Cameron Diaz really needs it). Aside from that, there’s not much to the character here. She comes across as one-dimensional without much to work with in terms of complexity or a back story.
Regardless of what has been said, Cameron Diaz is a very good actress. She is endowed with great comedic talents that were put to good use in movies like “There’s Something About Mary.” Diaz is game in making Elizabeth a despicable teacher, but she never becomes like the ones everyone hated during school years. It’s not her fault the script gives her little to work with, but she is wasted in a role she could have been fantastic in.
“Bad Teacher” almost picks itself up and scores some great laughs when Elizabeth discovers that the teacher whose class gets the highest scores on the state exam gets a bonus of around $5,000. Seeing her switch her class from movie watching to reading the first 100 pages of “To Kill A Mockingbird” in one night for a quiz the next day is comedic gold. It gets even better when she uses unorthodox methods to make the students learn like standing them in a line and hurling balls at them when they give the wrong answers. Unfortunately these are some of the highlights, and they all happen at the movie’s midpoint.
Other scenes like Elizabeth getting revenge on faculty members becomes anticlimactic as the viewer knows how they will end. When she is running the school car wash and dresses scantily, it’s funny for a minute. We’ve seen so many movies over the past few years which have utilized this sight gag, sexy women at a car wash barely dressed, and it’s so old now. It doesn’t matter how sexy Cameron still is years after her debut in “The Mask,” been there and done that.
One actor who fares better in this movie is “Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s” Jason Segel who plays gym teacher, Russell Gettis. His humor is unforced, and he never strives too hard in making us laugh and succeeds in sneaking jokes when least expected. If only “Bad Teacher” had more of this humorous magic…
Justin Timberlake once again proves that he can quit his singing career if he wants to. Watching him opposite Cameron Diaz is interesting because everyone knows they were previously a couple, and the chemistry between them certainly hasn’t died out. His character of substitute teacher Scott Delacorte is a rich guy who Elizabeth courts as she selfishly wants someone wealthy to pamper her for life. It is obvious how this relationship will turn out, and Timberlake does what he can with what he’s been given.
Other actors who have their moments include Phyllis Smith who steals scenes as the shy Lynn Davies. Her muted ways make for amusing moments as she argues about certain things bothering her at a very subdued level. Stealing even more scenes though is Lucy Punch who plays Elizabeth’s arch nemesis, Amy Squirrell. Lucy fills her character with a certain joy brought on by her innocence that masks a deep resentment that gets the best of her.
The director of “Bad Teacher” is Jake Kasdan who is of course the son of famed filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan, Jake’s a good director, and his movie “Orange County” was fun and served as one of the big breakthrough movies for Jack Black. But here, he is unable to find the balance between comedy and character. If the characters in this here movie were a little more down to earth and not as contrived, he could have made this film truly work.
Many will go into “Bad Teacher” with high hopes it would be a great nasty comedy along the lines of “Observe and Report” or “World’s Greatest Dad” let alone “Bad Santa.” The problem is this one is nastier than it is comedic. Making a comedy is hard work, but making a black comedy proves to be even more difficult. Better luck next time Jake.
* * out of * * * *
‘Bad Santa’ – A new holiday classic!
‘Observe and Report’ – Seth Rogen does Travis Bickle
‘World’s Greatest Dad’ – An ironically named movie with Robin Williams