If only Bad Teacher were better! It’s pretty good - funny enough, light enough, gets from point A to point B with some style and laughs - but it’s not great. And if it were great I think it might be really groundbreaking.
We’ve seen characters like the one that Cameron Diaz plays before - we’ve just never seen them as the female lead of a movie. And there’s something really exciting about that, that the movie pretty much assumes you’re going to accept a shallow bitch who uses sex as a tool to manipulate men for money and who wants to skate by in life while getting high and drunk as the protagonist. For much of Bad Teacher Cameron Diaz’s Elizabeth Halsey has one goal: get (please note: not earn) enough money to pay for a tit job.
It’s refreshing. I’ve always felt that true equality between sexes and races can only come when we acknowledge what horrible monsters people can be, regardless of race, color or creed. I don’t want to respect your culture or your gender, I want to take comfort that you’re in no way a better person than me because you’re from another country or have a different set of reproductive organs. And Bad Teacher levels that playing field; the film is obviously inspired by Bad Santa (I’ve spent the last ten minutes trying to figure out if there’s any connection between the two besides the similar titles and similarly despicable leads, and I’ve come up empty), and Diaz’s bad teacher is actually probably worse than Billy Bob Thornton’s bad Santa. There’s very little redeeming value in Elizabeth, which makes the films final dismount a bit tricky.
But director Jake Kasdan - and The Office writers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg (who go a long way towards proving that maybe Year One was a fluke of shit) - pulls it off. The entire film has a nicely misanthropic bent, so when Elizabeth has to learn a lesson and be nice to some people (it’s Hollywood), you get worried Bad Teacher will betray its own nastiness. But the film allows her to be helpful and personally transformative without crossing over into sweetness.
A large part of that comes from Diaz. She’s not an actress I particularly like, to be honest, and it took me a little while to accept her in the part. For the first twenty minutes I kept seeing her as Sandy Olsen walking into the fair dressed up in greaser drag; it’s cute, but you don’t believe it. Eventually, though, I got into her rhythm - it may have been the scene where she talks about trying to trick the Chicago Bulls into knocking her up - and began enjoying her depravity. This is completely a role for a woman of a certain age, and I’m not sure who else could have played it. The character is a beauty who is reaching the point where she can’t rely just on looks anymore, where she’s competing in the man-eating business with women half her age. That’s the pathos of the character, why she wants fake tits, so that she can get back into the game. The script never sugar coats her; she spends Christmas day trying to light her bong on the stove because her lighter is out of fuel. She’s pathetic but magnetic. The elements that made Diaz a movie star - her smile, her charisma - are the elements that allow her to go very dark and still keep us with her, if not quite rooting for her.
There’s another performance that made the film for me: Justin Timberlake as Scott Delacorte, the new, rich and creepily milquetoast teacher at the school. Elizabeth immediately goes after him, seeing him as a sugar daddy, but she never suspects what a really weird guy he turns out to be. I don’t want to spoil some of the better second half gags, but I loved the moment where Timberlake stands before a statue of Abraham Lincoln and tearfully declares how much he hates slavery. There used to be a time when making fun of Timberlake was totally okay, when he was a teenie bopper phenom. And then Sexy Back happened and it was weird because the song was good but nobody older than 18 wanted to admit it. Then Saturday Night Live happened, and all of a sudden we have this interesting comic actor. The Social Network is the movie that closed the case - Timberlake is the real deal. He’s back in sillier mode in Bad Teacher, but it’s fearless silliness. Timberlake is not interested in protecting his image, and he’s a joy. Watching Scott get progressively odder - in a middling white people way - is one of the film’s best aspects.
Then there’s Jason Segel. He’s okay! He has funny parts. He continues looking like he showed up to set after a really rough night, all bloated and greasy, and he actually makes Seth Rogen look like a more appropriate love interest for Cameron Diaz, believe it or not. He’s got a tough part because he’s not as silly as Timberlake and he’s not as despicable as Diaz, so his gym teacher character just comes across as a kind of dirty-minded schlub. Which isn’t terrible, but which makes the film’s central love quadrangle feel weak.
Luckily the fourth side of that quadrangle is strongly held up by Lucy Punch, playing the psychotically nice Amy Squirrel. It’s a truly unhinged performance, one that keeps finding new shades of insane to inject. Amy already hates Elizabeth because the prettier teacher is so lazy (she shows movies in class every day for the first half of the year), but when they begin competing for Scott’s affections - and when Elizabeth begins somehow blossoming as a teacher (she cheats) - Amy goes totally fucking nuts. Punch is a blast to watch unhinge.
All of these elements are great, but somehow Bad Teacher never quite gets as good as it should be. It’s funny, and I think it’ll be funnier on repeat viewings, but I’m an easy lay when it comes to laughing at comedies and I found myself not laughing that often. Smiling, or chuckling, but rarely bursting out in full belly laughs. I don’t know if it’s some subtle element of the editing, like the jokes don’t fall exactly on the beat where they belong, or if it’s just that the writing only gets the film so far, but Bad Teacher feels like it’s underachieving for much of the running time. I can forgive that - as long as a comedy is funny I’m happy. But I felt like this comedy could have been an all-timer, given the right work.
I’m curious to see how Bad Teacher is received. The film does have a genuinely black heart, and it often heaps scorn on its characters, especially the avatars of normalcy and decency. That will certainly keep some viewers away. But what really intrigues me is how people react to a woman playing a lead who is so horrible, so nasty and cruel and gross. It feels like Bad Teacher is crossing a line, and not just by a toe but hurdling all the way across. Good for everybody involved.