Cameron Diaz works hard in Bad Teacher. She strains, mugs and generally does all that she can to let everyone know that she can do broad comedy, damn it. It’s a gambit that almost works, with the star in her element as corrupt, bitchy middle school teacher Elizabeth Halsey.
Yet she’s let down by the script from once-hot writers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, which forgets to make her likable, and the milquetoast approach of director Jake Kasdan. Their film asks us to identify with a woman who behaves rather heinously, while it relies on her mean-spiritedly outrageous behavior to sustain all 92 minutes.
Elizabeth is without question the least-committed educator in the history of cinematic educators, a desperate gold digger who admits she got into teaching for the summers off and the lack of accountability, among other less than stellar reasons. Yet here she is, stuck in the hell that is John Adams Middle School. For Elizabeth, the horrors never end: Type A colleague Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch) keeps tabs on her, wealthy substitute Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake) is an infuriating pushover and the gym teacher (Jason Segel) won’t stop hitting on her.
The movie builds some steam in its portrait of the various fronts of Elizabeth’s battles against her employer and co-workers. The comic momentum manifests in the protagonist’s relentless flouting of the rules, in the nasty back-and-forth with Ms. Squirrel and in the single-minded desperation with which she pursues the twin goals of landing a rich man and securing a new pair of breasts. School is nothing but a vessel for Elizabeth to find the superficial things she’s looking for.
Yet things come apart when the filmmakers ask us to sympathize with the character and to find something worth caring about buried beneath her ruthlessly cold exterior. To convey the sort of vulnerability such an endeavor requires, the helplessness masked by full-throttle contempt, demands more than Diaz offers. Elizabeth is not the sad sack of Bad Santa. She’s cunning, manipulative and hard to side with in her struggle with Ms. Squirrel.
Further, the movie quickly sags into a predictable rhythm defined by tame “ribald” humor, flat set pieces that go on too long (dry humping, anyone?) and abrupt transitions in Elizabeth’s character. There’s a definite cap on how out-there Kasdan gets, while the material demands strong, crazy stuff.
Instead, sentimental Hollywood calls and turns the movie into something of a personal betterment vehicle for our hero. Developmental corners are cut as the narrative hurtles toward a conclusion that seems to have been dictated by the fear that viewers might actually think a teacher could, in the words of Kanye West, “be so heartless.”
Put simply, Bad Teacher lacks the full courage of its convictions.
The Upside: Lucy Punch is terrific and the movie has its share of funny moments.
The Downside: The film never pushes things far enough and grows mushy when it should maintain a strong, nasty distance.
On the Side: Writers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg are also responsible for the way more unfortunate Year One.