Oh, Man, What a Bad Teacher: A Review of Bad Teacher

06/22/2011 4:00 AM |

Bad Teacher

Directed by Jake Kasdan

Cameron Diaz chews, curses, stomps, and drinks her way to reinvigorated leading-lady glory in Bad Teacher, Jake Kasdan’s decidedly uneven but delectably demented tale of, well, a very, very bad teacher. Absolutely no background is offered about her character, Elizabeth Halsey; this is what the audience is allowed to know: Elizabeth is a middle school teacher who’s recently been dumped by her very wealthy husband. She now uses her time in the classroom to plot, steal, and scheme her way to finding the $10,000 required to fund the breast implants she’s so long desired.

Whether the material presented in Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg’s screenplay qualifies as actual narrative is debatable: most of the film is comprised of outrageous outbursts by Elizabeth at her students who just can’t understand why their papers are marked up in red pen with comments like “JESUS CHRIST.” Oddly enough, though, the lack of narrative structure or flow also allows so much of what’s happening to work so well in its own specific, shallow sort of way: Like a marathon of pretty good episodes of a pretty good sitcom, Bad Teacher moves along swiftly and aimlessly enough in its 85 minutes that the viewer is never quite able to become aware of the general absence of Screenwriting 101 staples like, oh, character development, subtext, or subtlety… the list could go on. Instead, Bad Teacher relies solely on its titular teacher’s nasty, unrelenting wits, presenting scene after scene of a woman who clearly shouldn’t be anywhere near a but has somehow found herself at the front and center of one, teaching America’s leaders of tomorrow. 

What’s especially working for Bad Teacher is the somewhat unlikely ensemble of energetic, talented actors, who all embrace their two-dimensional characters as if they had three. Aside from Diaz, who is an indisputably commanding, watchable presence, the other standout is Lucy Punch, who’s charmed limited audiences widely in films like last year’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. As the desperately enthusiastic Miss Squirrel—who quickly notes that showing Scream to 12-year-old children their first day back from winter break might not be the most practical way to achieve strong standardized test scores—Punch is able to redeem many of the script’s shortcomings by adding the extra layer of satirical juice the film’s voice sometimes lacks. Squirrel, who is desperately competing with Elizabeth for the affections of their fetching new coworker Scott (a sprightly Justin Timberlake), is a young woman torn between homegrown, well-intentioned values and selfish but natural desires. Her resulting struggle is easily the film’s comic highlight, especially as Squirrel finds herself acting a little badly in hopes of getting Elizabeth out of the picture by any means necessary. Introduce into the mix scene-stealers John Michael Higgins as the school’s dolphin-obsessed principal, The Office alumna Phyllis Smith as the desperate-to-be-cool Lynn, and a reliably amicable Jason Segel as a lazy, pot-smoking gym teacher who sees more good in Elizabeth than there probably is, and the audience is met with a cast of performers who work quite voraciously to amuse and to abuse—a test they all pass with flying colors.

Opens June 24

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