Review: Bad Teacher
1.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
In order to revel in a movie like “Bad Teacher,” you've got to at least be able to get on the baddie's wavelength – to enjoy vicariously flipping off the shiny, happy people, if not join in on ripping them new ones. This film doesn't give you that option. Instead, it follows around a one-dimensional woman who's fundamentally heartless, and it asks you to be heartless, too, by laughing at how she spreads her misery. Short of the occasional stone-cold remark (“I'd rather be shot in the face,” she says to a colleague's concert invitation), there's no fun to be found in this woman's feature-length tirade, not even the sinful, subversive kind. And there's next to no plausibility to her background, motives, or current circumstances, leaving her not just an unimaginable human, but barely even a conceivable monster. She's like an ultra-bitch attraction trapped behind glass in some sick circus, when she should be the sanctity-defying poster girl for guilty-pleasure rage, irresistibly beckoning you to get honest with your bad self.
It's through little fault of lead star Cameron Diaz's that the movie doesn't work. Though better known and beloved for her giggly-girl routine, Diaz has always been linked to the ruder side of comedy, be it via her hair-raising breakthrough in “There's Something About Mary” or her penis-serenading escapades in the underrated femme farce “The Sweetest Thing.” She can wield a raunchy attitude with the best of the boys, and toss out a cutting insult or a “whatever, man” with bitter nonchalance. But in “Bad Teacher,” she's working from a script (by “Office” writers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky) that gives her character no identity beyond the indecency, and reserves her no redemption for her world-hating ways. In “Bad Santa,” the movie whose stick-it-to-the-institution premise this one aches to follow, Billy Bob Thornton's booze-swigging St. Nick wound up bettering the life of the fat kid who drove him crazy, if only in his own foul-mouthed, roundabout way. Diaz's junior-high teacher Elizabeth Halsey essentially betters nothing, not even indirectly. How – or, for godssakes, why – she came to be a teacher in the first place isn't mentioned, but her goal in life is to be the trophy wife of a rich idiot, a goal that's thwarted when her mansion-owning fiancé smartens up and kicks her out. Back to the blackboard, she sets her sights on Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), a squeaky-clean and curiously loaded new teacher, whose love of Double Ds sends Elizabeth scrambling for boob-job money.
So there's your setup. The movie then fills the proceedings with truly hateable people, Elizabeth hardly being the worst. Miles away from your average playboy, Scott is a kumbaya half-wit in a cow neck sweater, whose campy earnestness Timberlake basically nails, but who's altogether stomach-turning nonetheless. A lousy mishmash of precious oddities, he's shown gushing over Elizabeth Gilbert's “Eat Pray Love,” childishly decrying the horrors of slavery and thrusting his way through a bout of dry-humping, one of two scenes in which director Jake Kasdan (“Walk Hard”) offers a profoundly unfunny and deliberate crotch shot (Did you see that? It's a boner!). All of the authority figures who might derail Elizabeth's criminal quest to fund her plastic surgery – from the dolphin-loving principal (John Michael Higgins) to the easily-duped racist who produces standardized state tests (Thomas Lennon) – are conveniently drawn to be morons, facilitating the impossible scenario in which Elizabeth doesn't do a lick of teaching, just drinks, smokes bowls and shows movies.
But by far the most abhorrent, can't-even-watch-her grotesque is Elizabeth's foil, Amy Squirrell (Lucy Punch), a happy-crazy superteacher and the worst film character of 2011. A ready-to-erupt loony with a veil of unbearably peppy prudishness, Amy's every line tickles your gag reflex, and Punch plays her as if sent from the underworld. The portrayal goes far beyond a successful villain embodiment; it's a despicably written role brought to shrill, demonic life – the stuff of nightmares, really. Sneer as she spews sticky hokum about an Annie wig and “the sun not coming out tomorrow.” Cringe as she freakishly bares her teeth and squirms about like a toddler. Shudder as she sits on a urinal and offers the twisted kiddie proverb, “'Later we all die,' said the gator to the fly.” (How about sooner?)
And yet, even the presence of this gallery of rogues can't send any sympathy Elizabeth's way, as she remains steadfastly unworthy of audience support. The closest she comes to being of this world is during some tough-love scenes with the class dork, whom she feeds harsh zingers about not bothering with the school hottie, while the film fails to integrate little shallowness epiphanies (cuz, you know, she was that hottie, too). And what does she get in return for her misdeeds (which, apart from being perpetually vile, include rigging test scores for cash rewards, pocketing car wash money and stealing from parents)? She gets Jason Segel, whom I never thought I'd call the highlight of a movie. He plays Russell, a gym teacher whose bad taste and anti-establishment views align with Elizabeth's, which means a) she's not interested, and b) she'll end up with him. Save Lynn (Phyllis Smith), a kindly colleague who's basically irrelevant to the film, Russell is the only palatable persona in this whole ant farm of creeps, so much so that he seems sunny by comparison. You don't want him anywhere near Elizabeth, and when he finally lands her, it doesn't feel like some match made in jerk heaven; it feels like the movie's just twisting the knife. If Russell had any sense, he'd turn his back and live by the only moral “Bad Teacher” generates: Misery may love company, but that doesn't mean it deserves it.