Movie Review: Bad Teacher
By Matthew Huntley
July 4, 2011
Bad Teacher is a comedy of ups, downs and mostly failed attempts at crude humor. There are times when it hits its marks, still others where we can hardly guess where it’s swinging. The title alone suggests it wants to be the next Bad Santa, but it lacks that movie’s rawness, sharp writing and strong central character. Camera Diaz may have better legs, but she’s no Billy Bob Thornton when it comes to unabashed comedy. What she and the movie do is make us laugh out some of the time, but they mostly leave us feeling apathetic.
Diaz plays Elizabeth Halsey, a middle school English teacher who knows she’s shallow, conceited and could care less about education. To her, teaching is only a temporary gig until she marries her rich boyfriend, whom she doesn’t love, but she sure loves his money. The boyfriend and his mother are onto her scheme and he dumps her, forcing Elizabeth to go back to teaching for at least one more year, leaving her the impression guys only want to marry women with large breasts. So what does she do? She makes it her goal to raise $10,000 for breast implants so she can have another chance at landing a rich beau and live off his wealth.
The movie provides itself this basic plot just so we can witness Elizabeth’s depravity throughout the school year. During this time, she shows her students violent Hollywood movies and justifies them because they take place in school (Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me); dresses scantily for the seventh grade car wash, leaving the young boys and grown men with erections; smokes marijuana in the school parking lot; and shamelessly flirts with Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), the new school sub who comes from a rich family.
Her rival is the overzealous Ms. Squirrel (Lucy Punch), who hates that Elizabeth’s poor teaching methods are being overlooked by the school’s naive principal (John Michael Higgins). Elizabeth is more loved by the phys ed teacher, Russell Gettis (Jason Segel), who’s sweet and genuinely likes his job. Even though he knows Elizabeth has no business teaching middle school English, he likes her and hopes she’ll change her ways.
As with most comedies, we don’t care much about the plot of Bad Teacher as much as the comedy, and this one goes out of its way to be rude and impudent, not necessarily to be funny, but rather for the sake of being rude and impudent. I guess the filmmakers hoped this strategy would automatically translate into humor, but their approach doesn’t always work, as too many of the movie’s would-be funny moments turn into comic dead zones.
One of the key problems is the Justin Timberlake character, who is merely a pawn for dialogue that’s blatantly meant to shock us. But the filmmakers should learn comedy only tends to be shocking when shocking isn’t its goal. Bad Teacher intends for audiences’ jaws to drop, but when that’s its ambition, the effect isn’t as powerful. The filmmakers don’t allow the politically incorrect wallops to play out naturally. Instead, they feel forced, as when Scott makes improper comments about slavery and ethnic food. I can just imagine the filmmakers were thinking this is when the audience will cover their mouths in shock. But when a movie is anticipating an audience’s response, or is even counting on it, it loses sight of what it’s trying to do and loses credibility.
The times I did laugh during Bad Teacher mostly involved Segel, who is the most comfortable on-screen and has the best comic timing of all the actors. If only Segel, a gifted writer, had also contributed to the screenplay; maybe then it would have concentrated on the idiosyncrasies of the characters instead of the brainless plot and forced dialogue. Segel proved with his script for Forgetting Sarah Marshall it’s the nature of people that make us laugh. Molly Shannon validates this with a brief cameo, making us wish she was given a more substantial role.
I wanted to like this movie, but it tries too hard to make us laugh that it eventually collapses under itself. One of the joys of Bad Santa was its subtle self-confidence. It simply observed the day-to-day misadventures of a drunken Santa Claus and wasn’t so pre-occupied with pleasing the audience. It knew it was a gem and was therefore able to be itself. If Bad Teacher adhered to this method and wasn’t so self-conscious about being naughty, those comic dead zones I mentioned earlier might have been filled in with laughter.