Sunday, June 26, 2011

Bad Teacher: A Review


I hadn't thought of going to see Bad Teacher but was persuaded to.  It wasn't a horrible movie, and there were a few laughs.  However, it's more forgettable than regrettable, a comedy that tries but doesn't give us any reason to see our lead succeed.

Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) is an unabashed, unashamed golddigger who is about to leave John Adams Middle School (JAMS for short) to marry her very rich fiancee.  Just as she's about to plunge into the good life, said fiancee dumps her, due in part, to the overbearing pressure of his overbearing mother.  That being the case, she now has to return to JAMS, back to the closest thing she has to a friend, Lynn (Phillis Smith), back to Gym teacher Russell Gettis (Jason Seigel), and back to her rival, Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch). 

Elizabeth has decided the best thing to do is get a boob job, convinced the enhanced seduction technique will land her a sugar daddy.  He comes in the form of Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), a substitute who is the heir to a watch-making family fortune.  However, Elizabeth has two complications in luring Scott: her tiny boobs and Miss Squirrel, who has charmed Mr. Delacorte into going with him.

It's now all-out war between Elizabeth and Amy, and the former will use all her feminine wiles to get her way.  Money is no object when she can lather up at a car wash (making the fathers ask that it be a weekly event), or in the bonus offered to the teacher with the highest test scores.  The latter may be a problem for Miss Halsey since she is a total slacker at JAMS: she spends all her time showing the kids various teacher-related films (Stand And Deliver, Stand By Me, one of the Scream films, don't ask me which one), at least when she's sober and conscious, sober as in either not drunk or stoned. 

Now with major moolah involved, recess is over and she gets the kids reading and studying To Kill A Mockingbird.  However, she is taking no chances: she seduces and drugs an Illinois test employee (Thomas Lennon) in order to get a copy of the test.  She wins the money, continues to fight her rival, somewhat seduces her dim-witted love object, all while Coach Russell still makes it clear that he doesn't approve of any of this but still wants her. 

Bad Teacher leaves one major question unanswered that, if resolved, would have gone a long way to either elevating or sinking the film altogether: did Elizabeth actually cheat on the state test?  The question is never answered, though the evidence would indicate that she did: she does go on to not just hire her Craigslist-solicited roommate to threaten test employee Carl Halabi but blackmail him as well with risque pictures. 

If that is the case, then she would have had to have gotten her whole classroom to go along with this, which makes our Bad Teacher into more a repulsive one.  Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg's script could have gone one of two ways: either confirmed that she did cheat or show that despite all evidence to the contrary she actually got the kids to pass through their own work.  If they'd gone for the latter, it might have been cliched but it would have given the audience a chance to pull for her.  If they'd gone for the former, we would have turned against her and rooted for her to fail or at least one would hope so. 

Side note: on more than one occasion Miss Squirrel is asked to pull back on her behavior/accusations, reminded about what happened in 2008.  I don't think we ever learned what happened in 2008, which was frustrating to have something introduced without a resolution.  It might have been answered: I don't remember, but I doubt it.  Leaving those things out there is a major flaw. 

Instead, the film opted to leave that question open, and it brings up a more general complaint about Bad Teacher: are we suppose to like or dislike the lead?  Elizabeth is by all measures a rather horrid person: openly smoking pot in her car where her students can see her, using her body to get ahead, even being openly bigoted (at Teacher-Parent Night, she tells her student's folks, 'That's my spiel, as the Jews say').  Therefore, we have no interest in her getting what she wants (in this case, bigger breasts and Mr. Delacorte).  However, when she offers words of encouragement to one of her students, albeit in a horrible way, the script asks us to see her as slightly human.  I don't think it can have it both ways.

It is especially difficult when almost all the characters are either repulsive or downright crazy.  The parents of one student torment our teacher with an excessively gleeful Christmas party, Miss Squirrel is one millimeter from being certifiably insane, her only friend Lynn appears to be totally weak, and Scott is a total nitwit.  The only person with any redeeming qualities is Russell, who is the only person who appears vaguely human.  However, the fact that he keeps going after a woman he should know is a mess makes us question his own intelligence.

It's standard in a film like Bad Teacher to have the characters either insane (the student's family at Christmas) or almost completely psychotic (Miss Squirrel, a woman who makes Flo from the Progressive Insurance commercials look like Simone De Beauvoir).  As a result, we never care about any of them because their actions have no motivation.  We never get a reason apart from being a complete pushover, why Lynn wants to be around Elizabeth; we never get a reason apart from the fact that she's hot, why Russell would want to be around Elizabeth; in an important plot point, we never get a reason as to why Squirrel wants Elizabeth out of the way. 

Yes, she may worry that she might steal Scott away, but given his turn-ons are education, why would such a hopeless slacker cause her any concern? 

Diaz knows how to command a dark, misanthropic persona, and to her credit Miss Hurley is thoroughly unrepentant about being a golddigger who doesn't care one bit about her students.  Segel is also good as Russell, who appears to actually enjoy his job as a gym teacher.  However, it isn't that she is unattractive, far from it, but she's so remarkably shallow and unpleasant that one wonders why he would want to be with her.

However, the rest of the cast left a lot to be desired.  Timberlake never appears sure whether he's suppose to be naive or just dumb.  At times he appears aware that women are fighting over him, as in real life I suppose, at other times he's suppose to be an innocent, totally engrossed in bad dancing to 80's music and bad singing/songwriting.  He could have succeeded in making Scott a sweet but dumb character except for when he is dry-humping Elizabeth on a school trip.

Side note: this is the first dry-humping I've ever seen, and really, did we need to see the stain on SexyBack's pants?

One can't come off as sweet and naive when you've schtupped your girlfriend's rival.  Smith was basically playing Phyllis from The Office at least from my memories of the show, so it's not possible to say whether she did a good job in Bad Teacher.   I also question how Lennon could play someone named Halabi, which I'm guessing is an Arab name, but I digress. 

I further digress to point out two things.  First, I might have misheard, but at one point I thought I heard Diaz's character refer to Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird as a 'he', which if correct is absolutely horrifying that they got the sex of the character wrong.  Second, when the students went up to Springfield to learn more about Abraham Lincoln, the Lincoln impersonator asked the kids to follow him and see how Mary Todd was doing churning butter.  While I'm not a history expert, I refuse to believe the real Mary Todd, a Southern belle extraordinaire, would ever churn butter. 

Bad Teacher isn't lousy, but it never is as raunchy as it could have been or as interesting as the premise would suggest.  I think of all the education that I missed...but I wish I had missed this film instead.


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