Lackluster writing, acting trash promising premise of “Bad Teacher”

Cameron Diaz shows students some tough love (or just pointless violence) in "Bad Teacher."

Alexander Pope warned that “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) has a little learning. Very, very little. She has less ambition. So the fact that she’s a middle school teacher makes her dangerous enough to be considered a WMD, incinerating the egos and minds of the fragile, hyper-hormonal pre-teens in her classroom. God forbid these kids get too close — high as she is, she might try to eat them for breakfast. 

In theory, “Bad Teacher” should be a slam-dunk. With movie history littered with homages to dedicated, selfless teachers, who wouldn’t welcome a movie about an educator who hates teaching and sticks it to the education system every chance she gets? To a degree, that’s what director Jake Kasdan’s movie is, and it has the added bonus (for those who are, like, into that sort of thing) of a star who looks hot in platforms, jean cutoffs and a soaked plaid shirt. But while “Bad Teacher” has plenty of naughty lines, they’re all self-consciously naughty. They read like lines, and with Diaz’s delivery they feel completely artificial, hardly a natural extension of the character. It’s tough to buy into Elizabeth Halsey as anything other than a caricature — Jessica Rabbit, only blonde and with a pottymouth — because Diaz offers no nuance. She just looks bored.

The secondary characters in “Bad Teacher,” though, make things slightly more interesting. The best of the actors shine despite the lame gags (Justin Timberlake’s repulsive “wet jeans” scene comes to mind) and forced script. Phyllis Smith (“The Office”) supplies her trademark gawky humor and stellar comic timing as shy Lynn Davies, a fellow teacher and Elizabeth’s only friend. She warns Elizabeth about Amy Squirrell (Lucy Punch, highly entertaining), the comically malicious busybody who romances the rich new sub, Scott Delacorte (Timberlake), before Elizabeth can get her money-grubbing hooks into him. Punch, who demonstrates a lovely lack of vanity, goes all-out to earn every laugh, and Amy’s unbridled desperation to win at everything only adds to the comedy. Jason Segel’s Russell, the average-guy gym teacher Elizabeth spurns repeatedly, has a few genuinely amusing moments, addressing one of his pale, artfully scruffy-haired students as “Twilight” and vehemently arguing with another that LeBron James is no Michael Jordan. The misfire (and it’s a sad one) is John Michael Higgins, comedian extraordinaire whose role as dolphin-crazy Principal Wally Snur is far too small. Given room to run, Higgins could have lived up to his character’s odd and inexplicably funny last name. 

Least interesting of all these is Elizabeth, who’s despicable up one side and down the other: rude, self-absorbed, petty, obsessed with money, possessed of a nasty sense of entitlement. She thinks the world owes her a living. These kinds of parts can be dynamite comedy with the right actors (free shots to Billy Bob Thornton’s Willie T. Soke). Kasdan, however, seems to think audiences will find nastiness endearing because it’s Cameron Diaz in sky-high heels who’s being naughty. How misguided he is. Bad behavior is fun, occasionally even affecting, when it serves a purpose.  In James Mottern’s “Trucker,” for example, Michelle Monaghan’s rough-at-the-edges charm made for an unpredictable mother/son story. Here, Diaz succeeds in the broad physical comedy (think “The Sweetest Thing”) but lacks the nuance to pull of the Elizabeth. She can’t manage to give depth to the character. And the appeal of a hot, bored woman smoking a bowl in her car in the school parking lot, slamming her students in the face with kickballs and dry-humping a coworker’s boyfriend is decidedly limited. Diaz has made a profitable career of coasting on her hotness. That doesn’t mean Kasdan should too. It’s a lazy choice, and it derails “Bad Teacher” way before it can rumble and squeak its way to a pitiful, completely illogical ending.

Grade: C-

9 Responses

  1. Never got the appeal of Cameron Diaz… And seriously, she looks really weird these days with all that makeup.

  2. I think she looks quite good Castor. :D

    I enjoyed this one – not so much a good film, as it is just funny. If a comedy can make me consistently laugh, than you must be favorable in your review.

    Very good article.

  3. I really wanted to see this one after seeing the trailer – it looked really funny. Though, once I started reading the reviews – it gave me mixed feelings. Good write-up!

    • @ Castor — You and me both. I’ll admit that she’s tall and blonde and leggy, but she’s rather a crap actress.

      @ Sam — “Bad Teacher” failed me in that way: I only laughed out loud twice during the whole thing, and both times were scenes involving Lucy Punch, NOT Cameron Diaz.

      @ Filmgurl — I saw it because of the trailers and also because I have a thing for Jason Segel. Problem is, the trailers had the funniest bits and Jason Segel was in the movie a grand total of about 10 minutes.

  4. good to see Parent Trap-era Lindsay Lohan holding Cameron’s balls

  5. I felt like I was promised more Segel than I got.

    It is interesting that the audience can root for a completely irredeemable character in Bad Santa, but not Bad Teacher. It could be because Thornton just exudes that attitude whereas Diaz doesn’t seem to be that shitty of a person.

    • @ McG — I would laugh, but I have no idea what that means. I assume it’s dirty.

      @ Fitz — You and me both! Segel’s all over the trailer, and he’s in the movie about 10 or 15 minutes total. What the hell? As for the “antihero,” I think Ebert said it best. He said Billy Bob Thornton’s Willie T. Soke is appealing because he is desperate. There’s a reason for his bad behavior. We never get any reasoning for Elizabeth Halsey’s behavior. She’s just a mean-spirited, lazy money-grubber because she is one, and that gets old very fast.

  6. I genuilnely fell asleep during this (gem-like rareity for me). As mentioned, it just seemed to be a bunch of people coasting in their comfort zone, with the most lacklustre script / story and direction… zzzzzzzzz

    • I was highly disappointed. And bored. Except with Phyllis Smith, whom I love. More parts in wide-release movies for her, please!

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