Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Bad Teacher

Perhaps as seen as a perverted commentary on the ill-fated state of the American public school system, Bad Teacher is a success.  The central character is a lying, manipulative, terribly unpleasant woman who could care less about her students, lazily resorting to revolving her lesson plans around watching classroom movies like Dangerous Minds, Stand & Deliver and To Sir, With Love, and who only resorts to actual "teaching" when there's a monetary incentive.  Perhaps as viewed as a wake up call to those who have the power to change a failing institution, this was a smart film-- I can see a wonderful opportunity here--perhaps a great marketing idea could be a deluxe edition of Bad Teacher and Waiting for 'Superman' sent in the direction of every school administrator, teachers union leaders, and parents as a call of arms for reform.  Perhaps, seen through that less cynical prism, there's was a point to this film, directed by Jake Kasden (a Judd Apatow protege, who honed his craft on episodes of Freaks and Geeks and Walk Hard.)  Unfortunately as summertime escapism, Bad Teacher barely gets a passing grade, despite game performances from a skilled ensemble, and the tease of joyously bad behavior that sadly just circles around without ever hitting its mark.

Cameron Diaz plays Elizabeth Halsey, a junior high English teacher, a careless coaster of the system, she's a foul-mouthed pothead whose main objective is to land a rich man so she can comfortably settle as an entitled trophy wife.  She sees a golden opportunity with the arrival of a handsome new substitute teacher (Justin Timberlake), a chipper trust fund baby.  The cure, according to Elizabeth, to win his heart and money is a boob job (his ex-girlfriend had big ones.)  A few other complications add to this particularly unfunny school year, including a rivalry between Elizabeth and a goody-goody teacher named Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch), and the affable, BS-free affections of a gym teacher (Jason Segal), whose financial standings offer him little shot at Elizabeth's heartless heart.  Plus there's some blackmail, sexual innuendo (including an uncomfortable dry humping segment) and hostile misogyny all transparently on display, most of which offers little amusement.  Which is not to say that there isn't a decent premise here (a raunchy little bit of inept, careless educators might have worked well in other hands) nor a fault of an ensemble who works tired punchlines and off-putting scenes with the right spirit.

Diaz, in particular, is tailor-made for a role like with this her girly charm and unabashed glee for naughty language, and she makes Elizabeth part vixen, part slacker, which with a sharper script probably would have worked.  It's unfortunate that as is, her character is so one note.  She's bad, we get it, but we could have cared about her, and none of her movie star luster radiates any empathy.  The problem with the character is her motive is particularly lame...the entire movie is rooted in Diaz's character getting a boob job, and what disappoints more than the fact that that is silly and more than a bit sexist, is that it's also incredibly lame.  Bad Teacher could have delved into a wonderfully dark comic anything with a more credible, or at least more interesting set up; her classroom scenes are kind of funny as stand-alones, especially in the beginning as a hung-over Elizabeth drapes a sweater over her head and passes out as her students watch past inspiring teacher movies.  Diaz has the gamesmanship and the appropriate mixture of naughty and nice physical goofiness at play; she's one of the few A-list beauties who sparkles best with vulgarity.  So, yes Elizabeth is unpleasant an inappropriate, but must she also be so vapid.  The payoff at the end would have hit far more strongly if the first two-thirds weren't quite so muddled and mindless.

The same is true for Lucy Punch as well, whose rival teacher is the most ingratiating character in the piece (and that's saying a lot); her Squirrel is a strange blend of Election's Tracy Flick crossed with the Road Runner crossed with a Disney princess.  Prudish and crazy, with a hyper type-A personality, Punch excels at being absolutely irritating every time she's on screen, and with the pungent, almost stinging annoyance she brings to her character, one must adhere that this must be a singular talent, and there is a sort of grand go-for-broke one-ups-man-ship in her feud with Diaz.  She's just as odd and incongruous here as she was as Anthony Hopkins' hooker friend in last year's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, she's such a committed performer, that you kind of like her anyway.  The question becomes again that if the stakes were raised, and the premise weren't so silly, there could have been a great deal of naughty fun in store.  That their rival is in pursuit of Timberlake is a deterrent, for he's such a passively odd, and boring character.  Far better is Jason Segal, who in a glorified cameo, gives the right shade of naughty and nice to his character-- he smokes pot too, but he's also kind of a nice guy.

Again, I like the idea of social commentary of the bad ideals in public education as the primary goal of Bad Teacher.  Perhaps it was intentional that the film is kind of bad in that regard...think about it, a bad movie about bad teachers starring a major movie star with the subtle agenda of crusading against real problems in American schools.  Hopefully no one as callous as Elizabeth works for the school district today, but perhaps the film is here to point out a call to find out; if not for the children, than for discerning moviegoers who would prefer never again to spend time with a bad teacher like this again.  Silver lining.  C-

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