Title: Bad Teacher
Directed By: Jake Kasdan
Starring: Cameron Diaz, Lucy Punch, Jason Segel, Justin Timberlake, Phyllis Smith, John Michael Higgins, Matthew J. Evans, Kaitlyn Dever, Kathryn Newton, Noah Munck
Think you had some bad teachers in school? Well, Cameron Diaz’s character in Bad Teacher is above and beyond. This is a movie though, so above and beyond can work, right? Of course, but it can also backfire big time and, oddly enough, Bad Teacher manages to do both with its incredibly preposterous titular character. (Keep those minds out of the gutter, please.)
Elizabeth Halsey (Diaz) is on the verge of living the high life. She’s just about to marry a super rich guy and wrap up a job she despises, working as a seventh grade teacher at John Adams High Middle School. Too bad after the “JAMS” team gives her a heartfelt goodbye and a gift certificate to Boston Market, her potential mother-in-law decides she’s had enough of Elizabeth’s money-hungry ways and convinces her son to call off the wedding. Now, Elizabeth has no choice but to return to John Adams, all her bitterness in tow.
On day one, Elizabeth has already completely given up, resorting to screening films rather than teaching her class. However, when she meets the new sub, Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), she gets the motivation to actually do something while at work, win his heart so she can live happily ever after courtesy of the Delacorte family watch fortune. Unfortunately, Scott’s got eyes for Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch), the painfully peppy perfect teacher desperate to expose Elizabeth’s poor conduct.
The Bad Teacher plot is as absurd as they come. First of all, it’d be absolutely impossible for any teacher to get away with Ms. Halsey’s behavior whether it be the minor tribulations like showing a movie on the first day of school or something more felonious like getting high during a school dance. Then there’s the fact that all of her co-workers would simply hate her as she’s incredibly insensitive and selfish. There’s also this bit when Elizabeth seduces a state testing official in order to get her hands on an answer key. Remember The Perfect Score? This scenario is even more ludicrous than that.
Between the believability issues and the fact that you’ll hate Elizabeth just as much as her co-workers should, the first act of Bad Teacher flounders big time. Jokes are too mean-spirited to be funny, Punch’s character’s voice is worse than nails on a chalkboard and Diaz’s carwash scene is so desperate, it’s pathetic. Sounds like the start of an all-around bad movie, right? Wrong.
Somewhere in the beginning of the second act, Bad Teacher does a bit of a turnaround courtesy of Jason Segel. His character, the gym teacher, Russell Gettis, is one of few that are likable from beginning to the end. It’s a wonder that he’s got a thing for Elizabeth as he’s a seemingly sweet guy, but because he earns your compassion from the moment he steps on screen, you’re all for supporting his courting effort. The best part of this part of the story? He starts to rub off on Elizabeth, humanizing her. Whereas at first, you couldn’t care less that Elizabeth’s life is falling apart, now that this guy we kind of like is involved, it’s a game changer.
Once Elizabeth starts to soften the slightest bit, the entire film takes on a new tone and it works surprisingly well. Jokes aren’t just funny, but downright hilarious and you’re actually entirely engaged in Elizabeth’s fight. While her goal doesn’t become more noble, having more fun with the film compels you to join her side and regardless of whether or not it’s for something entirely superficial like a boob job, all of a sudden, you’re all for her getting it.
Of course part of the character’s ultimate success is due to Diaz too, as this role was made for her. She’s impressively natural as Elizabeth and, once she’s got you hooked, you’ll have just as much fun watching her antics as Diaz seems to be having herself bringing them to life. While Timberlake appears to be having just as much fun, whereas Diaz is her character, Timberlake is simply playing Scott. It’s almost as if he’s just playing dress up, as though donning a button down sweater and thick black glasses automatically makes him a nerdy teacher.
Punch, on the other hand, embraces her character’s gung-ho nature in some of the best ways possible. Sure she’s a bit irritating, but that’s the effect Ms. Squirrel is meant to have. Had Punch taken it down a notch, it would do a disservice to Diaz’s character. The only element to Ms. Squirrel that misfires completely are the references to some incident that happened in 2008, which is never fully explained and therefore winds up doing nothing for the character other than creating confusion. Another supporting cast member deserving of praise is Phyllis Smith who plays Lynn Davies, one of few teachers that welcome Elizabeth back with open arms. She creates such a perfect blend of timidity, awkwardness and kindheartedness that it’s not only impossible not to like her, but it’s an amalgamation that breeds hilarity, too.
There’s no dismissing the fact that Bad Teacher is ultimately promoting bad behavior and something about that feels very wrong, but thanks to the well-earned laughs, it also gets itself a bit of a free pass in terms of its lack of nobility. You know the student who gets by by charming the teachers rather than through honest hard work? Bad Teacher is the big screen equivalent as its plot is ludicrous, its main character mostly unlikable and it has some jokes that are painfully in poor taste, but, ultimately, it manages to sway you with its powerful pace and uproarious gags so much so, you’ll let the other issues slide.
By Perri Nemiroff