Bad Bad Teacher! Bad!

Bad Teacher *1/2

You run some pretty significant risks in calling your movie “Bad” Anything. The main one, of course, is that snide critics may simply say “Bad Teacher. Bad Movie” (they’d be right). Also, when your lead character is “Bad”, they run the risk of being unlikeable, and as we all should know by now, movies with unlikeable leads don’t work. For an example, see “Bad Teacher”.

One of the (many) reasons “Bad Santa” worked so well and is remembered so fondly is the fact that being a department store Santa is not a great gig: it is degrading, shockingly seasonal, commercialized to the max and considered by others to be the last refuge of the fat, hairy damned. We could sympathize with Billy Bob Thornton’s terrible Santa because we could see how badly his job sucked (in the appropriate parlance of that wonderfully profane movie); we would’ve rebelled against it too. But teaching, as we all know, is the most important of all professions, and being a terrible teacher is simply not funny. It is off-putting. Indeed, it is enough to make us dislike Cameron Diaz’s lead character Elizabeth even before the other stuff – and there’s plenty of other stuff. Elizabeth is the most dislikable character I’ve encountered in a film in a long time (lead or not). She’s extremely lazy, incredibly mean to people, shallow, narcissistic, a liar and a thief. The fact that she drinks at her classroom desk and smokes pot in the school’s parking lot don’t even rate when compared to her simply despicable personality. That’s all piled on top of her being willing to destroy her students’ lives by not teaching them a thing. Cameron Diaz (looking strange – I wonder if she’s had a bit of wonky surgery) plays all this with great commitment, to the death knell of the film: she’s so believable as a truly horrible person, we despise the character, and it ruins any chance of being able to like the movie. Elizabeth also has the worst Character Objective I may have ever seen in a real movie: to get a pair of breast implants. Seriously.

The filmmaking is sloppy. Scenes exist for no reason (including any of the incredibly awkward – and not in a good way – scenes with Elizabeth and her roommate (played by “Modern Family”’s Eric Stonestreet) which don’t even seem to be trying to be funny). Jokes fall disastrously, embarrassingly flat. The mise en scene is strictly “point and shoot”: At one point, in a bar scene, the camera actually has a dolly move – one! – as if to remind us we’re actually watching a movie, not a particularly cheap and nasty television show from the 1990s. And, in desperation, the film resorts to hugely loud sounds of a man defecating and an absurdly lengthily held shot of a woman’s enhanced knockers.

Of course there’s redemption – of a sort, and only to a point – but it’s way too little way too late, and we don’t buy it for a second. Diaz has spent an hour and a half building a very believable portrayal of a royal bitch and five dashed-together minutes at the end is not going to make us care for her one iota. It’s all almost weirdly, impossibly ill-conceived. Justin Timberlake – who has proved he can act in other, good films – flounders very seriously in a terribly-written role: perhaps that’s why they’ve kept him out of the ads. The kids – so important to a teacher movie – are insipid, uncharismatic and unmemorable. The very little joy there is in the film comes from the performances of the second-tier players who bring their sheer professionalism: the always-reliable John Michael Higgins is, as always, reliable; like wise the ever-reliable Phyllis Smith, Thomas Lennon and David Paymer (wasted in a one-scene role: how much did he get paid for that?) It’s also the first time I’ve really enjoyed Jason Segel on the big screen – he actually finds a little depth in his schlubby, carefree Gym Teacher With A Heart of Gold. Lucy Punch, an actor I haven’t encountered before, is excellent in the film’s hardest role: as Amy Squirrel, the best teacher in the school, she has to go from being seemingly perfect to taking over the villain’s part so Elizabeth can – unsuccessfully – try to attract our sympathies. And, as noted before, Diaz is thoroughly committed to her role; she’s very good and very believable as this horrible wench, and it makes for a lousy movie.

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