"Bad Teacher" review
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, June 24, 2011
“Bad Teacher” suffers from a truth-in-advertising problem. Fans of “Bad Santa,” Terry Zwigoff’s Christmas movie starring Billy Bob Thornton as a smoking, drinking Kriss Kringle, had reason to hope that “Bad Teacher,” starring Cameron Diaz as a smoking, drinking middle school teacher, would be just as hilariously twisted. Instead, this fitfully funny but mostly dull misfire defines exactly where the line can be drawn between truly subversive humor and lazy cynicism.
Diaz brings her signature brand of blond va-va-vooms to Elizabeth Halsey, a sultry, surly self-absorbed gold digger who decided to become a teacher for what she deems “the usual reasons: short hours, summers off and no accountability.” When her planned jackpot of a marriage comes up lemons, she’s forced to return to her old job at John Adams Middle School (JAMS), where she visibly recoils from the fatties, nerds and poors she’s forced to work with. As for actually teaching students, it’s enough to pop “Stand and Deliver” or “Lean on Me” into the DVD player before she succumbs to the crippling hangover she habitually wakes up with.
As every screenwriter knows, movie protagonists need a compelling goal to keep viewer interest. In this case, Elizabeth is working toward breast implants, a hero quest that supplies “Bad Teacher” with plenty of lascivious sight gags. She’s also looking for another rich guy to marry, and she sees potential in a new substitute teacher at JAMS, a bespectacled sweetie named Scott Delacorte, played in a disarmingly self-deprecating turn by Justin Timberlake.
Timberlake’s set pieces — a musical number where he sings a bad song badly, the funniest fully clothed sex scene since “Harry Met Sally” — exemplify the all-too-fleeting moments of humor in “Bad Teacher,” which was written by Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg (“Year One”) and directed without distinction by Jake Kasdan. A promising assortment of famous players from TV sitcoms — including Jason Segel of “How I Met Your Mother,” Phyllis Smith of “The Office,” Eric Stonestreet of “Modern Family” and Noah Munck of “iCarly” — make up a comic dream team of a supporting cast. But with the exception of Segel and his reliable laid-back flair, they’re left with next to nothing to do but react with appalled awe to Elizabeth’s trademark vulgarity-strewn ripostes.
As this summer’s surprise hit “Bridesmaids” proved, lady-type-people are fully capable of raunchy comedy, so Diaz swearing like a stevedore and slinging her sexuality like a six-gun aren’t particularly shocking. Instead, what was playful and even progressive in “Bridesmaids” here feels strained and mean-spiritedly one-note as Elizabeth cuts an increasingly cruel swath through the school. She focuses most of her destructive energy on her nemesis, an Up With People-ish teacher named Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch, whose British accent here gives way to an utterly authentic Midwestern twang).
What passes for a third-act turnaround is unconvincing and too slight to make an impact; and what passes for a happy ending feels rushed and unearned. It takes good filmmakers to make bad people if not sympathetic then at least interesting. “Bad Teacher” isn’t good that way. It’s blandly, boringly bad.
Contains sexual content, nudity, profanity and some drug use.