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.