Film Review: Bad Teacher

Bad teacher, worse movie…this summer comedy is an underachiever that should have been held back.

Opening in the wake of this spring’s sleeper hit Bridesmaids, a raunchy but witty variation on The Hangover told from the female perspective, Bad Teacher would seem to have a ready-made audience eager for more of the same: edgy, over-the-top humor made more titillating still by substituting a foul-mouthed, intemperate, conniving babe for the too-familiar male counterpart. Director Jake Kasdan (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story), writers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg (“The Office”) and producer Jimmy Miller (Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby) would seem an ideal team for the project. The cast, with Cameron Diaz promising to top the outrageousness of There’s Something About Mary, also features Justin Timberlake playing against type.

Brilliant syllabus, sloppy pedagogy. Bad Teacher is vulgar without being transgressive, a twee academic term that seems appropriate to this calculatedly offensive film. A series of skits hung on an implausible plotline—the filmmakers don’t bother to pretend that the proceedings onscreen bear any resemblance to reality—the movie sets out to shock us from the opening scene, where our anti-heroine, Elizabeth Halsey (Diaz), establishes her wanton ways and potty-mouth credentials with a single spectacularly ill-timed turn of phrase. This turns out to be one of the better moments in the movie: Ribaldry and inappropriateness are not the problem; lack of comic invention, a threadbare script and one-dimensional characters are.

Take Elizabeth, our pleasure-seeking gold-digger who, despite that she looks as though she should be snorting coke in the loo at the Beverly Wilshire, somehow has acquired credentials to teach at a middle school in the unglamorous suburbs of Chicago. True, she is engaged to a wealthy schmuck who keeps her in Christian Louboutin heels, but we’re hard-pressed to imagine her sharing furnished rooms with a slacker she’s culled from Craigslist, although that’s where she finds herself after she’s dumped by her fiancé. Her dream of becoming a trophy wife abruptly shattered, Elizabeth turns her attention to enhancing her desirability with a new set of breasts, if only she could afford them.

Even more improbably, we’re asked to entertain the notion that Scott Delacorte (Timberlake), a stupendously shallow but presumably very rich heir, has chosen to fill his days working as a substitute teacher. Scott, a priss and a prude, favors tortoiseshell specs, pullover vests and bow ties, and he’s given to earnest pronouncements on obvious issues (slavery makes him angry). Not a problem for Elizabeth, who’s ready to throw down for any man with the right portfolio.

Such stuff and nonsense might be fun if the writing were crisp and the story engaging, but Bad Teacher flunks both tests. Elizabeth not only decides she must have Scott, she convinces herself that the way to his heart requires the systematic abuse of her sacred trust as teacher in order to bolster her boob fund. She shakes down parents to assure preferential treatment for their children, skims cash from the school car-wash marathon (which requires Diaz to writhe wet and sudsy atop car hoods, the high point of the movie if not her career) and undertake far worse perfidy ending with one big score, literally. As we watch this highly unlikely scenario unfold, we are treated to gags that only Maxim subscribers will find amusing. One chestnut, warmed over and cracked open time and again, involves Elizabeth arriving to class so hung over she has to show a movie, a running joke culminating in this punch line: “Movies are the new books!” Talk about old school.

Bad Teacher’s best moments occur when Diaz shares scenes with Jason Segel, who plays Russell Gettis, the gym teacher with a schoolboy crush on Elizabeth. Writers Stupnitsky and Eisenberg show how good they can be when they stop straining to gross us out. Diaz and Segel never get beyond Bunsen-burner chemistry, but they get extra credit for what amounts to extracurricular effort. Lucy Punch as Amy Squirrel, a goody-goody teacher, does what she can with a role that requires her to play the foil to Diaz. Phyllis Smith (“The Office”) as Lynn, the poor-soul, terminally shy, overweight shill for Elizabeth, is made to endure too many mean-spirited jokes, but she does so with more grace than the movie deserves. In fact, all the actors deserve good marks in this failed production; if only their mentors had allowed them to practice self-directed learning.