Bad Teacher

Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 06/24/11 14:00:00

"Only Jason Segel Earns Tenure"
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

In the pantheon of recent "R"-rated comedies, foul-mouthed and satiric, slob-enforced and Apatow-approved, none can rank as such an ungodly mess at the screenplay level than Bad Teacher. Poised to hopefully do better for educators than what Bad Santa did for thieving department store drunks, this is a film that has no idea what it wants to be other than a jumble of scenes where the titular teacher swears and cons her way towards a pair of new tits. As a structure, Bad Teacher resembles what it might look like if a tornado blew through Terrence Malick's editing room. Though even then Malick would probably still have enough footage to assemble a film. At under 90 minutes, Bad Teacher has no appreciable arc for any of the characters and if it wasn't for the work for at least one of the actors who appears to have shown up with his own script, this would have been an even more brutal affair.

Cameron Diaz is the proverbial bad teacher, Elizabeth Halsey. She has completed a year at an Illinois middle school and is moving on to marry her meal ticket. When he dumps her (with a little help from his mom) for being a golddigger, she has nowhere to go but back to school. With no interest in teaching the curriculum or anything else, Elizabeth does nothing but show movies, which begins to draw the suspicion of overachieving "fun" teacher, Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch). Elizabeth is just buying time though until she can raise the ten grand she needs for the boob job she believes will attract another rich man. Odd considering she is doing pretty well drawing attention with the assets she has while strutting around like a wet-'n'-wild playmate during the school car wash.

Her man may have come to her though when Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake) takes a job at the school. Just getting over a breakup himself, Elizabeth plans to work her flirty magic on this potential heir to a family watch fortune. On the flipside, school gym teacher, Russell Gettis (Jason Segel), keeps trying to ask her out to no avail since he's so poor and all. Principal Snur (John Michael Higgins) has to deal with the accusations against Elizabeth by the increasingly unstable Miss Squirrel; accusations of drug use, cheating and stealing. All of which are naturally true while Elizabeth in no means seeking redemption of any sort, helps the love lives of shy but eager-to-please teacher, Lynn Davies (The Office's Phyllis Smith) and a dorky student (Matthew J. Evans) with an unattainable crush.

There are so many comic possibilities in that one paragraph, not to forget the astounding array of avenues to take on within the current educational system in this country or just goofing on all the teachers-who-make-a-difference movies. Just showing them one after another and playing a "Gangsta's Paradise" montage grades an incomplete. For a film that promises to get down, dirty and uncompromising, the makers have all turned into that shy kid who can't muster up the courage to tell off the bully or ask that girl out. Writers Gene Stupnitsky & Lee Eisenberg (of Year One infamy) need to BE the bully though and be relentless with this kind of material. Throwing out a casual borderline racist comment or an F-bomb here and there will not cut it. The first mistake they make is creating an environment around the Elizabeth character that would allow her to strive in the manner she has become accustomed to. Not a single comment or suggestion is made about her one year (or nine-month) tenure at the school so we can never be sure if she coasted her way through the cavalcade of sitcom idiocy employed around her or if she became a truly bad teacher after being dumped. And that's just their first mistake.

Director Jake Kasdan is no stranger when it comes to spoofs and satires. From the brilliant modern take on Sherlock Holmes in Zero Effect to the parody of music biopics in the underappreciated Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and even to a lesser effect in going behind-the-scenes of television in The TV Set, Kasdan has more experience in the realm than many of the hacks earning top dollar for lackluster comedies. Here though he misses a golden opportunity to really take a shot at America's school system, where some teachers can skirt by just as easily as many of their students. Instead of surrounding Elizabeth with such do-gooders and clueless faculties, would it not have made a better ensemble piece to show every teacher as having more human faults? Make Elizabeth the worst of the worst, but the chasm she creates now between the staff makes the Dean on TV's Community look like Joe Smith.

Consider Elizabeth's antics throughout the film and what little payoff they have on the rest of the film. She's caught pocketing money at the car wash, but are those tips or part of the $7,000 she raised? We're never told. She begins taking bribes from the parents for extra special attention and supplies in one scene and that is never referred to again. When she discovers the potential bonus for having the highest state test scores, a plot point that would appear to kick off her conversion process, does she all of a sudden get knowledge? Was she always smart enough to know the thematics of To Kill A Mockingbird or is it all written down for her like she's a blade runner? We know nothing about this character and if the screenplay is going to insist she's so much worse than all the other teachers in the world it better come up with something that is truly going to shock audiences who have just about seen it all, even in comedies that never had to earn an "R" rating. We've seen Billy Madison throw dodgeballs at children and make a mockery of education.

The almost pure randomness of the film's flow is striking even in a film universe that allows Todd Phillips to continue making comedies. Timberlake gets a couple individual moments at song and sex that don't even measure up to his appearances on SNL. Lucy Punch has been making a film career of late (particularly in last year's Dinner For Schmucks) more suited to be a mugging SNL featured player and is given so much screen time here that her annoyance factor is off the charts. The only person on hand nailing it in every scene is Jason Segel. Too few scenes compared to every other supporting player in the bunch, Segel at least instills Russell with a regression of patience in Elizabeth's denials to where he just shows up to mock her, everyone in her path, and maybe even the mess of a screenplay with an expedited contempt. His Lebron James commentary plastered all over the film's previews has only grown in stature since the Heat's finals failure and should be the only moment that audiences laugh and applaud in equal measure.

Cameron Diaz can be a very likable or very annoying presence, depending on your tolerance factor. But since There's Something About Mary and even the first Charlie's Angels film, she has not found a role that has been able to take advantage of that sunny likability or her skills as a comedic actress. Aside from whatever sexual peccadillos she can offer visually or through dialogue, Diaz is constrained by the limits of either a really weak script or a late run through the editing process that tried to string the laughs closer together in lieu of allowing the development that could have made them more potent. There is an epic fail lurking here beneath one teacher's occasional rescue and it is likely to sink in even worse once you are out in the real world.

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