“Bad Teacher” disproves something this examiner had long thought to be true. Turning over thoughts of contemporary comedy, it would seem that if a movie can keep you laughing, even if it does everything else wrong, is still at least satisfying enough to make the experience worth while. At the end of “Bad Teacher,” walking out of the theatre, there are a lot of laughs but overall, there’s something negative about the experience, even a little bit offensive.
Cameron Diaz stars as Elizabeth Halsey, a party girl and unlikely teacher who is barely getting by, doing the whole education thing until she can hook a rich boyfriend and marry. Elizabeth is all set to retire when her fiancé finally comes to his senses and dumps her. Forced to go back to work she becomes an even lazier teacher than before. Every day, Elizabeth sits at the front of her class and shows irrelevant movies while sleeping off hangovers. Any time spent out of the classroom is talking down to teachers in the hall, or scheming to get something from them.
She is convinced that if she can save enough money for breast implants she’ll be able to win a new man. Currently, she has her eye on substitute teacher and man-boy Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake). Scott must be a full-time sub since the movie takes place over a whole school year and he’s there every day. Elizabeth is not interested in his good looks or passion for teaching, but rather that he is the heir to a wealthy watch manufacturing company.
Elizabeth learns that the teacher whose students have the highest grades in the state on the year-end achievement exam receives a $1000 bonus. She then sets out to push her students to academic success. This is where most movies would become a turnaround story where the protagonist realizes the error of her ways and does the right thing. “Bad Teacher” knows those movies are gag educing and has fun doing the opposite. Elizabeth becomes an even worse person. Her plan is to steal the answers to the test and make her students memorize it. There’s a really funny sequence where she seduces the socially challenged bureaucrat test keeper by pretending to have a clerical sex fantasy.
Elizabeth is such a bad teacher it’s hard to believe she could keep her job, let alone have made it through her teaching degree. Then again, stranger things have happened. After all, George W. Bush is a Harvard graduate. And as the excellent documentary, “Waiting for Superman” points out, there are plenty of bad teachers in U.S. schools that remain gainfully employed.
In fact, it’s hard to believe that anyone in this movie except for maybe Timberlake’s character could be considered a good teacher. But that’s only because he’s the only one never seen in a classroom. In one scene three teachers (including Elizabeth) sneak off to smoke a joint in the gym while they are supposed to be supervising a school dance. One teacher shows a student how to properly throw a rubber ball at a teacher’s head. A nemesis for Elizabeth develops in the form of an ebullient teacher named Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch). At first Amy seems like a good teacher, even though her irritating enthusiasm for everything is meant to convince us to dislike her. But by the end of the movie she proves herself to be capable of sinking to the same lows as Elizabeth.
Jason Segel plays Russell Gettis, the nice, funny gym teacher, who’s got a crush on Elizabeth. He lets her know how he feels many times. In return, Elizabeth is rude to him and puts him down. Russell must have a self-esteem problem, or issues with women, or both since he continues to pursue her, even though he could do better. Anyone who has been to enough movies will get the feeling that Elizabeth and Russell will eventually get together in the end. When Elizabeth does concede to dating him, she’s got one more putdown for Russell: that she is willing to date him despite that he’s a simple gym teacher, and only a modest financial success. Even though she emotionally abuses this man, the scene is played in such a way that the audience is supposed to applaud Elizabeth for coming around to the morally right way of thinking.
All four principle actors have a lot of comic energy and they look like they’re having such a good time playing these characters that it’s contagious. The comedy is mostly raunchy and its reliance on the actors’ delivery and timing rather than gross-outs shows the confidence the filmmakers have placed in them.
Some people feel as though they cannot enjoy a movie if the lead character is unlikable. But the assortment of unlikable movie protagonists occupying good movies proves it’s more important to understand a character. Elizabeth’s feelings and motivations can be understood, but it’s the undoing of the movie by inviting the audience to like and root for her, rather than having the movie just be about her.
Here is where things border on offensive. We live in a time where the global economy is transitioning to a knowledge based one, and when it’s questionable whether the American education system prepares students for anything beyond high school. And if you’ve seen “Waiting for Superman” you know how much teachers who don’t teach, and “drop out factory” schools (schools full of those teachers) are a burden on society. Considering that, “Bad Teacher” rubs the wrong way. Here is a movie where audiences are asked to applaud a teacher who doesn’t teach.
So in the end this review is a compromise. There are laughs so it’s hard to say the movie is a bad time. But it does leave a bad aftertaste.
**1/2 (out of 5)
David Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org