Monday, June 27, 2011

Movie Review: Bad Teacher

Bad Teacher ** ½
Directed by: Jake Kasdan.
Written by: Gene Stupnitsky & Lee Eisenberg.
Starring: Cameron Diaz (Elizabeth Halsey), Lucy Punch (Amy Squirrel), Jason Segel (Russell Gettis), Justin Timberlake (Scott Delacorte), Phyllis Smith (Lynn Davies), John Michael Higgins (Principal Wally Snur), Dave Allen (Sandy Pinkus), Jillian Armenante (Ms. Pavicic) , Matthew J. Evans (Garrett Tiara), Kaitlyn Dever (Sasha Abernathy), Kathryn Newton (Chase Rubin-Rossi), Igal Ben Yair (Arkady), Aja Bair (Devon), Andra Nechita (Gaby), Noah Munck (Tristan).
Bad Teacher really wants to be a movie like Bad Santa or the original The Bad News Bears. The concept is simple – take a profane, crude, completely inappropriate grown in a position of responsibility deal with children and let the hilarity ensue. This worked for Bad Santa, because Billy Bob Thornton was brilliant in his role as the worst department store Santa in history, and the direction of Terry Zwigoff, along with the screenplay, was pretty much pitch perfect. The rest of the cast followed Thornton’s lead, and what you ended up with was one of the funniest comedies in recent years, no matter how inappropriate it all was. Bad Teacher doesn’t come close to rising to that level.

The movie stars Cameron Diaz as Elizabeth Halsey, who took a job as a middle school teacher for a year as she prepares to marry a rich doofus. But then the doofus, egged on my mom, dumps her and so she is stuck going back to school once again to mold young minds. She doesn’t care about her students, and makes that abundantly clear from the beginning. She shows movies to class every day – everything from Stand and Deliver to Lean on Me to Dangerous Minds to Scream (hey, that does have some action in a school). She mainly sleeps and gets stoned in the parking lot. She is trying to save up enough money to get a boob job, to help her attract another rich doofus. She thinks she may have found the proper rich doofus in the new substitute teacher, Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), who comes from an extremely wealthy family, and teaches because he enjoys it. He has also made a nemesis of Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch), an overly perky teacher across the hall, who thinks, correctly, that Elizabeth is a horrible teacher. Then there’s the gym teacher, Russell Gettis (Jason Segal), who shares Elizabeth’s cynicism, but likes teaching gym. They are more attuned to each other, but he’s not rich. Things change only when Elizabeth finds out that the teacher, whose class gets the highest marks on the state wide test, gets a bonus. That would pay for her boob job – but of course, her kids don’t know anything, because she hasn’t taught them anything.

There are moments in Bad Teacher that work – that are hilarious (I still laugh every time I think of Jason Segal arguing with a student about whose better – Jordan or LeBron, even though I’ve seen it dozens of times now in the previews). For her part, Diaz throws herself into the role, and is actually quite good here. In fact, the whole cast is. Lucy Punch is perfectly suited to play the perky nemesis, Justin Timberlake makes a surprisingly convincing dork and Jason Segal is charming and funny as the gym teacher. The supporting cast, including Christopher Guest regular John Michael Higgins, as the dolphin loving principal and The Office co-star Phyllis Smith, as the only teacher who actually likes Elizabeth have some nice notes as well.

So why then, is Bad Teacher nowhere near as good as it should be? I think the real problem is that the movie missed its best opportunity. There are far too few scenes with Diaz and her students – none of whom ever really become characters in the story. Bad Santa mined many of its laughs because of the way Thornton interacted with the loser kid he started to stay with. That was really the heart of the movie. The rest of it was colorful, wonderful background. Here, that’s about all there is. There is something funny about grownups being completely inappropriate around children – at least to me – but grownups acting like assholes around other grownups simply isn’t quite as funny. In addition, while some of the one liner are great, many quite simply fall flat. The cast is game, but the screenplay never quite rises to their level.

I’m not going to say that Bad Teacher is a horrible movie. It isn’t. It works as a distraction, and is mildly enjoyable. It has its moments, and I was never really bored by it. But, the film just never quite gets to the level it needs to be at to be truly successful or memorable. This cast deserved better.

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