Movie Review: Bad Teacher (R)

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Length: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

Age Appropriate for: 16+, with a parent to get their children in. Most older teenagers are probably already aware of the film’s lewd elements, like dirty jokes, drug use, lots of cursing and sexual material, including bare breasts and some implied sex scenes. It’s not as patently offensive as something like “The Hangover Part II,” but the bawdiness does seem inappropriate for those younger than 16.

Cameron Diaz is getting older, losing all abandon and going all out in the vulgar ‘Bad Teacher.’ But the whole ‘getting older’ part, and the film’s refusal to acknowledge it, is what makes ‘Bad Teacher’ a disjointed comedy parents may laugh at but won’t remember.

By Roxana Hadadi

In real life, Cameron Diaz certainly isn’t old — at 38, she still has about two decades until AARP can start knocking on her door. But if “Bad Teacher” acknowledged her age, it would be a way better film than its pretense of Diaz as Elizabeth Halsey, a fresh-faced twenty-something who is burnt out from her life, looking for meaning and throwing herself at any rich person who moves. “Bad Teacher” wants us both to recognize Elizabeth’s pathetic desperation but also believe she’s still young and hot, a duplicitous scheme that doesn’t benefit from Diaz’s obvious age. She’s not the girl from “The Mask” anymore, and it shows.

That’s not to say 38 is ancient! It’s not! But we all know a film can’t cast a noticeably older actress in a role meant for someone a decade younger; that’s why “Beverly Hills, 90210” became so unbelievable as the actors struggled to pretend they were still teens, and even “Glee” creator Ryan Murphy is phasing out the show’s stars this upcoming season so audiences don’t get turned off by their obvious adulthood. Without enough character development, “Bad Teacher’s” Elizabeth is sketchy and imprecise; her constant superficiality is fine, because that’s what we expect. But the plot’s inconsistencies, its refusal to build out its characters or expand on their motivations, are what make Diaz the film’s weakest link, its most unbelievable element.

I could buy that she’s a woman frustrated from a decade of teaching with nothing to show for it, yearning for a sugar daddy to pay her bills, so she spirals into a tunnel of “Bad Santa”-like nonchalance about the children in her care. But I just made all that up, because director Jake Kasdan and writers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky give us no details about Elizabeth’s life before the movie’s time frame. Poor storytelling like that can’t be saved by Diaz’s constant sneers, the film’s raunchy dialogue or the solid snark of Jason Segel. “Bad Teacher” seems like a derivative mimicry of other R-rated comedies like “The Hangover,” “Bridesmaids” and “The Hangover Part II” instead of a real game-changer for the comedy genre.

The film begins by introducing us to Elizabeth, a fantastically well-dressed, fantastically vapid gold-digger, who after one year of teaching at John Adams Middle School is leaving to get married to some obscenely rich guy. When her fiance’s mother points out that Elizabeth doesn’t even know his birthday, however, the jig is up, leaving her with only $40 in the bank and living with some random dude she met on Craigslist. The next fall, she’s back at JAMS, determined to find another man to bankroll her life — and soon she’s both noticed new substitute teacher Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), who comes from a wealthy family, and butted heads with overachieving teacher Amy Squirrell (Lucy Punch), a hyperactive, nutty character who the filmmakers attempt, in every way possible, to make rodent-like. Elizabeth and Amy hate each other instantly, of course, since one cares about her job and the other doesn’t. $20 if you can guess which is which! (Please don’t take me up on that. I’m as sadly poor as Elizabeth.)

So Elizabeth has two goals: To do nothing at her job, infuriating Amy, and get with Scott, infuriating Amy (who also is crushing on the cutie). Of utmost importance is getting enough money for breast augmentation surgery, which Elizabeth thinks will jettison her from an 8.5 to a 10 or so, snagging Scott and his money. Car washes, stolen state tests and lots of drug use follow, as Elizabeth interacts with other staff members — like gym teacher Russell Gettis (Segel), who makes his attraction to her clear — and students who are dealing with their own issues. Middle school is the worst.

But the worst parts of “Bad Teacher” are mostly because of the film’s lack of noteworthy context. Elizabeth has been at JAMS for only a year, but what about previous schools? She loves the summers off, but how has her refusal to actually teach students anything not gotten her fired before? And if she’s clever and manipulative enough to con parents, fellow teachers and the general population into thinking she’s good at her job, how come she couldn’t even remember her rich fiance’s birthday? You would think a career gold-digger would at least get the details right.

Diaz is refreshingly evil here, dissing a student’s overdone baked goods and another’s poetry, but it’s hard to believe someone so vampy would settle for such a non-glamorous day job. Similarly infuriating is the idea that Timberlake is believable as a nerdy and awkward character; a pair of glasses isn’t enough to make us forget the actor is an internationally known pop star (that criticism counts for Clark Kent/Superman, too). Diaz and Timberlake dated for three years in real life but are curiously dry together here; the sparks instead come from Segel, who winks at the audience with his double entendres and sly asides, and Punch, who delivers some killer spastic faces as she gets more anxious about Elizabeth’s antics. Remember when the dog Doug from “Up” freaks out over squirrels? Punch is basically the rodent in question.

But the supporting performances in “Bad Teacher” can’t detract from its numerous plot holes or vague characters, who can’t even be stereotypes because they’re not fully fleshed out. Is Elizabeth a slacker with a good heart, or a manipulative mastermind who is joshing everyone? Is Scott sexually repressed, or extremely perverted? Does Amy actually care about her students, or is she simply committed to being zany, wacky and weird for the sake of being zany, wacky and weird? “Bad Teacher” eschews those answers in favor of Diaz’s much-hyped car wash scene, numerous shots of teachers doing drugs and lots of crass sex talk, but all the humorous vulgarity in the world can’t save a movie so sparse.

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