*/**** | Image A Sound B- Extras C-
starring Cameron Diaz, Justin Timberlake, Lucy Punch, Jason Segel
screenplay by Gene Stupnitsky & Lee Eisenberg
directed by Jake Kasdan
by Jefferson Robbins It's time for a teacher-centric dark comedy, I think. American public education, always beset, is under threat today by moralists, union-busters, profiteers, economic malaise, and taxpayers who simply refuse to vote for better school funding. We say that children are our future, yet we bus them off every day to institutions we no longer find trustworthy. Federal regulation collides with common sense, and all that matters in the end is filling in the bubbles on a Scantron sheet. Education needs its own The Hospital or Network--something like an update of Arthur Hiller's 1984 Teachers, but with more focus, and better bite. What it doesn't need, or at least doesn't benefit from, is Bad Teacher.
I think Elizabeth Halsey was supposed to be one of those expectation-defying roles that net new box-office and accolades for a star, but...we don't reallyexpect anything of Cameron Diaz. If it were Julia Roberts gaily threatening/promising her fiancé to "suck your dick like I'm mad at it," the audience would probably have word-of-mouth'd Jake Kasdan's comedy to the high heavens. As it stands, it's just Cameron Diaz--many years past There's Something about Mary--talking dirty and looking hot. A trailer-ready car-wash scene spotlights what Harry Knowles, circa Charlie's Angels, called "Cameron Diaz's magical swirling ass." This we have seen.
Bad Teacher, in title and subject matter, seems to aim for Bad Santa territory in crafting a wanton antiheroine with way too much influence over impressionable kids. Both Diaz's hoochie-skirted Chicago schoolmarm Elizabeth and Billy Bob Thornton's Willie of the earlier film are in it for the money, to greater or lesser extents: Willie is a drunk, a felon, and an active misanthrope who wonders how all these good things keep happening to him, whereas Elizabeth is just a selfish, oft-thwarted golddigger. Toiling briefly as a middle-school educator while she waits to marry into money, Elizabeth sees her expectations dashed and has to reenlist in teaching, finally setting her hooks for a handsome, moneyed substitute (Justin Timberlake). Is it a sexist reflex that we root for Willie to pull off the heist and collect all the hot-tub fucks with Lauren Graham he can, while caring not one iota whether Elizabeth can afford the boob job of her dreams? Even if Elizabeth's cosmetic quest is Diaz commenting on the physical standards imposed on even the most beautiful actresses, and even if the presence of her sometime-paramour Timberlake is a metatextual joke for the TMZ crowd, I don't think so. Kasdan maintains a lot of goodwill for the inverted Sherlock Holmes drama Zero Effect and the mock-rock-biopic Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, but he doesn't play with this material to the extent required. With such unsurprising direction and so many missed opportunities for subversion--like a neglected subplot on standardized testing--he knits together a lesser film.
The weakness may start with the script, by Year One writers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, which surrounds Elizabeth with a raft of grotesques with even fewer character notes than she has. Her dolphin-obsessed principal (John Michael Higgins), her lumpy cat-lady confidante (Phyllis Smith), her do-gooder nemesis Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch)...despite the performers giving their all (and Punch and Smith, in particular, really elevating their sparse material), there's nothing here. There are no real stakes to Elizabeth's slacker curriculum of showing Stand and Deliver in lieu of teaching. The gags are abysmal, and when the movie lunges for titillation or a gross-out laugh, it's a lunge of desperation. Surrounded by improv superstars who get dragged down by the story's ballast, Timberlake, of all people, manages to shine--or rather glisten, especially in a career-defining dry-hump scene. It's still not very funny, and given the satirical possibilities inherent in a story about educators, that's too bad. There's a single moment in which Elizabeth advises a hopeless nerd in her care, "Seventh grade is not your moment.... I'm thinking college. That's your window. Be ready." I wish a teacher had presented me with that wisdom at the right time--and maybe that's part of why I found Bad Teacher so terribly disappointing.
A bad movie can still be made to look great, of course, and Sony's Blu-ray presentation of Bad Teacher is top-tier. Detail is sharp in the 1.85:1, 1080p video transfer, making the chalky, tiled milieu of John Adams Middle School stand out like the nightmare edifice most schools are. Classrooms are where teachers dress greys and browns with splashes of educational colour, and the picture quality flatters this marriage, particularly in Amy Squirrel's overly-decorated domain. Edge enhancement is nonexistent, while it's clear from a warm residue of grain that this is a film shot on film (via the Panaflex Platinum camera, to be precise). The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track does yeoman's duty, neither standing out nor underperforming. Room ambience is appreciable, as in Elizabeth's quiet gymnasium talk with P.E. teacher/suitor Russell (Jason Segel), but this isn't a flick where F/X or crowd noise play a large role. The BD/DVD Combo Pack offers both the theatrical and unrated versions of the movie, the latter scattering roughly five extra minutes of stuff that is not missed at all in the former. Elizabeth tries to pick up a rich guy in a bar; Elizabeth begs her parents for money on the phone, Elizabeth asks her roommate how big her new tits should be...and like that.
There's no audio commentary, though a descriptive English track for the visually-impaired is maybe funnier in its matter-of-fact presentation than the film as rendered: "While driving, Elizabeth lights a joint, then eats a cheeseburger,then applies eyeliner!" The BD does come with a passel of quick-hit HiDef special features, like the "JAMS Yearbook," a gallery of character profiles that each include about a minute of footage, some of it absent in the finished film. A five-minute gag reel is, in the nature of these things, funnier than much of the movie it supports; on the other hand, the four minutes of outtakes and six minutes of deleted scenes were indeed best left out. In one of the only true featurettes, "Raising More Than Funds" (4 mins.), co-writer Eisenberg reveals that the car-wash scene was one of the first gags conceived for Bad Teacher. I could see it as a selling point--"Cameron Diaz washes your car in Daisy Dukes" probably got some producer money locked down tight--but can you build a whole movie on it? Well, they tried. Later, Eisenberg outs himself as a minimal supporting player in "A Very Odd Blacksmith Story" (2 mins.), and John Michael Higgins riffs on his character, cetacean-obsessed Principal Wally Snur, in "Swimming With Dolphins" (4 mins.). "Good Teacher" (4 mins.) has the entire cast talking about...yawn...about the qualities that...zzznnnurk...uh, that make a teacher good at...good at...zzzzzzzzzzz …. HD previews for Friends with Benefits, 30 Minutes or Less, Attack the Block, Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, A Good Old Fashioned Orgy, andColombiana are available on spinup. Originally published: February 22, 2012.