‘Bad Teacher’ Review – Diaz Deserves Better

There’s probably a good movie to be made from what Bad Teacher‘s working with, but sadly, this is not that movie. On paper, I love the idea of Cameron Diaz playing a hilariously, irredeemably selfish teacher who’s mean to her students, with a supporting cast of seasoned comedians to back her up. In practice, despite some genuinely funny gags performed by talented, funny people, Bad Teacher never manages to rise past mediocrity.

Directed by Jake Kasdan (Orange County) from a script by The Office writers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, Bad Teacher follows Elizabeth Halsey (Diaz), a caustic, irresponsible, materialistic junior high school teacher whose only goal in life is to snag a rich man so she can quit her job and live in luxury. She’s got her sights on a wealthy new substitute teacher named Scott Delacorte (Diaz’s real-life ex Justin Timberlake), who in turn has his eye on fellow teacher Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch). Meanwhile, sarcastic gym teacher Russell Gettis (Jason Segel) is putting the moves on Elizabeth, and there’s also a tangentially connected plotline about Elizabeth’s quest to raise money for a boob job.

Let’s start with what works: Diaz, who’s no stranger to raunch but is usually cast as a nice person, nails every one of Elizabeth’s cruelest, most inappropriate lines and puts her supermodel looks to enjoyably evil use. She’s supported by a slew of beloved sitcom actors — Phyllis Smith (The Office), John Michael Higgins (Arrested Development, Community), Thomas Lennon (Reno 911!), David (Gruber) Allan (Freaks & Geeks), an almost unrecognizable Eric Stonestreet (Modern Family), and more — who each get some fun moments — as well as a couple of capable co-stars in Segel and Punch.

In addition, some of the jokes are actually funny, if not exactly brilliant. There are even a few zingers that haven’t been played endlessly in all the marketing materials. I tend to be a sucker for a good comedy about an irredeemable asshole, especially one that’s mean to kids, so lines like “Keep talking like that, you’re gonna get punched” (in response to a seventh-grade student who wants to be President someday) got a laugh from me. Actually, I’d say I laughed a reasonable amount throughout the film.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot about this film that doesn’t work, and what fails in this case overshadows what succeeds. Despite its talented cast, the characters and relationships are mostly pretty weak, since the film doesn’t bother to spend enough time on them. The lackluster plot feels like something cobbled together because something needed to connect the dots, rather than a coherent or interesting story. All this might be forgivable if Bad Teacher were an incredibly funny film, or perhaps a truly subversive one, but it’s not. It’s just regular amusing, and that’s not enough to make up for the fact that the rest of it simply isn’t very good.

The meat of the story lies in the love quadrangle, but it’s impossible to care who ends up with whom when none of the characters seem to have much momentum or sizzle in the first place. Timberlake is the cast’s most obvious weak link — stiff and self-conscious, Timberlake turns the kinda-douchey Scott from a guy you might love to hate into a guy you just plain hate. It’s no fun watching Amy and Elizabeth compete for the attentions of such a dull fellow. Bad Teacher flounders even worse with the Elizabeth-Russell flirtation, which it tries to present as the emotional center of the film. Diaz and Segel each get some clever lines, but the two of them don’t have nearly enough chemistry to get past the fact that Elizabeth is such a dick, it’s never clear why Russell wants her so badly. (Aside from the obvious but not very satisfying reason that she’s really hot, I mean.)

The rest of the plotlines are equally unfocused. The boob job thing gets picked up or dropped whenever it’s convenient (e.g., when it provides a convenient excuse to show Diaz soaking wet in Daisy Dukes), and there are some minor subplots involving some of the students that never really go anywhere. Worst of all, the writers seem unsure of what arc to take with its lead character. Elizabeth is far too (entertainingly) unlikable to get a convincing redemption, but the film can’t simply leave her exactly where she started, either. In the end, they picked a route that I found false and unsatisfying. I couldn’t help wishing they’d taken notes from the similarly themed Bad Santa, which managed to balance the two sides much more deftly.

In the end, Bad Teacher is a mostly-D film that’s elevated to a C through some B-level gags. Bad Teacher gets enough stuff right to suggest it could’ve been a much funnier, more interesting film, but as it is, it’s not worth the price of admission. Instead, I’d suggest saving it for a few months down the road, when you’ll inevitably stumble across it on some On Demand channel. It’s the perfect thing to play in the background while you clean your room — fitfully amusing but not nearly good enough to deserve your full attention.

/Film Rating: 6.0 out of 10

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