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Saturday
Jun252011

Bad Teacher (2011)

Classless, Dismissed

On Thursday, while working my day job, I got a 4pm e-mail informing me of a large project that needed to be done right away. I knocked off at 6, went to dinner with friends, and returned to the office at 10:45. I got home at 3am and returned to work five hours later, after two-and-three-quarters hours of some of the worst sleep of my life.

I could never have guessed beforehand, but this was the perfect mental state in which to watch Jake Kasdan's Bad Teacher--a movie so tired and unfocused that I got everything I needed out of it even while nodding off about twenty times.

In fairness, I can't blame Kasdan. There's nothing about the movie that suggests it was directed by anyone with a flair or signature. It's a flat, jumbled series of bombing sketches strung together by the flimsy idea that Cameron Diaz is really attractive.

Okay, I've exposed a personal bias. But my issue with the star really does play a central part in Bad Teacher's failure as a movie. Writers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg apply the same brand of illogic to this screenplay as they did to their laugh-free embarrassment, Year One: Have really popular actors and once-gifted (now utterly neutered) comedians bring the weakest, fart-jokiest screenplay imaginable to life in the hopes that the mere ingredients will result in a classic comedy. Bad Teacher takes the formula to new lows by not bothering with annoyances like relatable character motivations and through-lines.

Diaz stars as Elizabeth Halsey, a middle-school teacher who loves money and hates kids. After getting engaged to Mark (Nat Faxon), a wealthy something-or-other, she quits her job for a life of leisurely shopping. The film opens with her last day of school, after which she arrives home to Mark and his sensible mother (Stephanie Faracy), both of whom have the good sense to break up with this gold-digging shrew.

Elizabeth returns to the school the following semester, determined to snag the new, hot substitute teacher, Scott (Justin Timberlake), who also happens to be the heir to a watch-making dynasty. Because Scott's ex-girlfriend had big boobs, Elizabeth naturally assumes that's all he's looking for in a woman, so she spends the rest of the picture stealing money to pay for new tits.

That's the plot.

She commandeers a student car wash and brings in Horny Suburban Dad dollars by practically masturbating with the hose; she rigs the Illinois standardized test so she can take top prize as Teacher of the Year and win a $5700 bonus. Her teaching method involves screening classroom dramas like Stand and Deliver and Lean on Me for weeks on end (eventually, she resorts to showing Scream, which is sort of about school; it's Bad Teacher's one clever moment).

The rest of the faculty at Jane Addams Middle School are bubbly, oblivious cartoon characters with silly cartoon-character names. Principal Snur (John Michael Higgins) and Ms. Squirrel (Lucy Punch) are bubbly do-gooders with a thinly protected layer of darkness. Elizabeth and Ms. Squirrel form a rivalry because one is an annoyingly sweet educator who cares about her kids' futures, and the other is a dumb, money-grubbing tart. Of course, because the tart is our story's hero, Ms. Squirrel must be knocked down several pegs, humiliated, and eventually shown to be untrustworthy (because having an upstanding foil be decent from start to finish is just too complicated an idea for audiences to work with). The one person who doesn't fully tolerate Elizabeth's facade is the gym teacher, Russell (Jason Segel), but that's only because he has a crush on her.

By film's end, Elizabeth realizes that she doesn't need big breasts to get a man because there's a perfectly decent, totally free push-over in the athletic department. This romance caps off a triumphant run of scheming that involves blackmailing a member of the board of education (Thomas Lennon), framing Ms. Squirrel for stealing all the money, and not bothering to teach her students anything academic. Elizabeth gets off scot-free with a new boyfriend and a cushy gig as a guidance counselor.

You may wonder how I followed all of this while essentially sleeping through half the movie. No, I didn't copy the synopsis from Wikipedia, nor did I ask someone who was alert the whole time for a recap. Bad Teacher sets up each scene with a story point and then plays out base, pseudo-vulgar jokes about said point until the next scene--there are no nuances or developments in the middle with which to be concerned. So when presented with a five-minute sequence where Elizabeth seduces Board of Education Guy, I safely checked out because the movie had proven that nothing interesting or funny (to an adult) would get past me.

Believe it or not, I was kind of excited to see Bad Teacher. I laughed a little bit at the trailers, and was sucked in by the supporting cast. I'm a big fan of Timberlake (fuck you), Segel, and Higgins, and I figured they'd be enough to prop up Diaz--who, apart from her voice-over work on the Shrek franchise and a five-minute scene in Vanilla Sky, has failed to interest me as an actress. She reminds me of savagely unattractive club girls who dress sexily and aggressively make themselves up to mask the fact that the steak beneath the sizzle has passed its sell-by date.

Bad Teacher is also like those club girls. It wraps itself in bad language and dry-humping gags, but underneath it's neither smart nor edgy enough to register as anything but desperate. The gold standard for the pit-black comedy this movie aspires to be is Terry Zwigoff's Bad Santa. That film requires a lot of tarnish-remover to find its black heart; its characters are truly miserable and vicious, and would eat a poser like Elizabeth for breakfast. More importantly, it stands by the convictions of its hard-R rating, reveling in jokes about sodomy, crime, and alcoholism while showing what such depravity does to a person over time. Bad Teacher has an R-rated mouth, but a strictly PG-13 mind.

Diaz is definitely invested in the material, but everyone else is slumming. All of the best jokes were swallowed by the trailer; leaving us with essentially a mass-hypnosis exercise, in which each of the cast performs one-note, SNL-quality shtick while bouncing off the other performers, who are acting in different, imaginary sketches. Punch is especially wasted, having been relegated to an imbalanced, psycho-soccer-mom archetype instead of being given the chance to stretch what are potentially hilarious and heartwarming comedic gifts. The material is so far beneath everyone involved (except Diaz) that I get the feeling they would have skipped this movie at the multiplex had they not been been cast. Bad Teacher is a goddamned tragedy, and I'm glad I was semi-conscious for most of it.

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