Friday, June 24, 2011

Not Bad Enough: Bad Teacher

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

The success of "Bridesmaids"--both in terms of quality, and in the fact that it made a good amount of money--has me hopeful for the future of female-centric comedies that don't fall into the category of "rom-com." Unfortunately, the new comedy "Bad Teacher" has me equally scared for the future.

Cameron Diaz stars as Elizabeth Halsey, the titular "Bad Teacher," a hot and shallow gold-digger who gets dumped by her rich fiancee, and must return to the job she had just quit to get married: English teacher at a suburban Chicago middle school.

How she actually got a job as a teacher, being that she doesn't give a shit about learning, or kids, or really, anything but landing a rich husband, is never explained. (Which is fine. I had a hard time figuring out how half the teachers I had growing up landed their gigs too.) Once back at school, she sets her sights on nerdy substitute teacher Scott Delacorte, (Justin Timberlake), because he also happens to be the heir to a fancy watch-making family fortune. Her rival for his affection, and rival overall, is Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch), the social studies teacher across the hall. Meanwhile, Russell (Jason Segel), the laid-back and affable gym teacher, does his best to woo Elizabeth, though she would never deign to date someone who teaches, yuck, gym.

Yes, Elizabeth is a bad teacher. She plays movies about teachers to her students, (things like "Stand and Deliver" and "Dangerous Minds"), while she sits at her desk drinking and sleeping. She smokes pot. She spits out the cookies students bring her, and embezzles money from a charity car wash so she can help pay for a new pair of tits. (The better to land that rich husband with.)

So, with the above evidence laid out, it might sound crazy when I say: Elizabeth is both awful, and not awful enough. Her behavior is bad enough to make her unlikeable, but not bad enough to be funny. I kept wanting the movie to really push her antics way past the point of excusability, or even legality, (her interactions with the students are all very chaste), but instead it plays it safe, and we're left with a self-centered character we have no investment in, be it to see her succeed or get her comeuppance.

That said, Diaz is good in the role and isn't afraid to come off ugly, in all senses of the word. Her co-stars are a mixed bag. Judy Punch is perfect as the prissy and suspicious foil, and has a moment of manic face contortions that is the best bit of physical comedy in the movie. Timberlake, on the other hand, is disappointing, especially since he's been a natural comedian on awards shows, and in his frequent "Saturday Night Live" appearances. Turns out the one-note approach to comedy that can work in a five-minute sketch doesn't come off that well in a full-length movie.

Thank goodness for the presence of Jason Segel. His role lies somewhere between supporting, and cameo, but in every scene he's in, he brings a relaxed sense of comedic timing and (possible) improvisation that results in most of the movie's only genuine laughs. If "Bad Teacher" makes enough money to warrant a sequel, I can only hope it results in something focused on him. "Good Gym Teacher" anyone?

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