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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-

“The Town” captures spirit of Boston but overdoes action

Affleck (left) and Renner make for a formidable team of thieves in "The Town."

There’s a strange air of historical reverence and foreboding about Boston that’s singular. Don’t expect anyone to mistake it for New York, Chicago, Los Angeles; Boston exists in a class all its own. And it takes a mighty talent to tease out that energy and make it seem genial enough to draw us in, make us comfortable and ominous and tense enough to keep us breathless. Ben Affleck — the star of “Reindeer Games” and, Lord help us, “Gigli” — is precisely the man for the job. Who knew?

Looking back, the signs were there. In his acting career, Affleck has excelled at playing conflicted souls: Gavin in “Changing Lanes,” George Reeves in “Hollywoodland.” The parts that required him to show up and look dashing were largely forgettable. Turning a director’s camera on the streets of Boston, his hometown, then, seems like a logical step. He proved in “Gone Baby Gone” that it was a brilliant one, too. While “The Town,” with its amazingly filmed car chases, doesn’t soar quite as high as “Gone Baby Gone,” it comes damn close, this time with Affleck tackling the confused protagonist, Doug MacRay.

MacRay is a product of Charlestown, a Boston neighborhood pegged as a breeding ground for bank robbers. In Charlestown, bank robbery isn’t so much a crime as a learned trade. Doug’s father (Chris Cooper), now doing hard time for a job that went sour, served as walking, talking how-to guide. Doug hammered out the finer points with best friend James “Jem” Coughlin (Jeremy Renner) at his side. Now Doug’s the cool head behind a successful bank robbery ring. Success starts to come at a price as Jem, a wild card with a volcanic temper and no scruples, becomes increasingly unpredictable. He’s the reason MacRay’s team takes its first hostage, bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) — a mistake that proves doubly dangerous when they find out she lives just a few blocks from her office. Jem’s eerily content to “take care of her,” but MacRay takes a kinder approach: He chats her up at a laundromat, strikes up a friendship with her and ends up liking her. Affleck displays a blessedly careful touch on the romance angle, letting Claire and Doug’s relationship develop at a slow, unforced pace. Their bond feels delicate but real, and it gives Doug the push he needs to consider leaving Charlestown.

Skipping out, however, won’t be easy. There’s FBI agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm sporting a half-hearted Boston brogue), whose team encircles the bank robbers like hungry foxes closing in on a rabbit’s den. Renner’s splendidly unnerving Jem abides his own bizarre moral code and expects Doug to fall in line as well. Charlestown crime boss Fergie (Pete Postlethwaite, the only actor capable of making a florist seem menacing) isn’t keen on Doug skipping out the job, either. The walls are closing in on all sides for Doug, trapped by both his past and his present, and yet Affleck smartly holds back when he could have gone for weepy drama. One thing he doesn’t dial down is the violence. As much as there was in “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town” has more — so much and so showy that it detracts from the more human storyline of Doug struggling with his loyalty to Charlestown and his desire to leave it in his rearview. The final act of “The Town” involves too many bloody showdowns to count, but there is a marvelous car chase filmed in such a ground-level way that it’s terrifying and captures the claustrophobic feel of Boston’s narrow streets.

Another strong point of “The Town” is Affleck’s ability to write characters that can’t be pigeonholed. Everyone exists in the gray areas. Renner, in an electrifying performance, plays Jem as unpredictable, scary and volatile, but he feels a brotherly protectiveness for Doug. Hamm’s hard-nosed cop has a moral flexibility that lets him to steamroll people to get what he wants. Claire’s anger toward Doug and her affection for him have her in an agonizing stalemate. The moral grayness gets drowned out by the gunfire and it’s underused, but it’s there and it’s powerful. How do you draw the line between “right” and “wrong” when loyalty is involved? Does that line even exist? “The Town” doesn’t answer, but what matters is that Affleck cares enough to pose the question.

Grade: B+