“Bad Teacher” is one of those screwball comedies that succeeds in making a hero out of someone who is completely selfish and despicable.
Like Billy Bob Thorton’s Willie in “Bad Santa”, Cameron Diaz embodies her character, Elizabeth Halsey, with such a volatile temper and a toilet-toothed mouth that it seems incredible she be allowed anywhere near children.
Spending her early morning classrooms by sleeping through her hangovers while the students watch a collection of her movies, Elizabeth is armed with a unique motivation for a teacher in a movie about teachers. She needs ten thousand dollars in order to pay for breast implants.
Why would anyone as beautiful as Miss Diaz feel that she needs the extra baggage? How else is she going to land a sugar daddy? She makes no qualms about her ordeal. She wants a rich husband so she will never have to work again.
Few leading comedy actresses of today can make this kind of story work. In order for us to find the material funny, we need to be able to identify with Elizabeth. And in order for us to identify with Elizabeth, we need to enjoy her company.
The big challenge is that Elizabeth represents everything wrong with humanity itself. She is manipulative, conceited, and genuinely disinterested in the lives of others, colleagues and students alike. In fact, she is probably the last person who should be teaching middle-school English literature.
And as anyone who has seen Davis Guggenheim’s remarkable documentary “Waiting for Superman” knows, she is not the only bad teacher out there wasting countless hours upon the country’s young and impressionable minds.
How did she even get the job? The movie’s story structure is not concerned with her backstory or how she got there. By enforcing her sexuality along with her good looks, it seems apparent that she probably manhandled her way into tenure.
This is really the perfect vehicle for Cameron Diaz. After her bland performances in forgettable films such as “Knight and Day” and “The Green Hornet”, Elizabeth’s raw vulgarity is a return to form for the actress, who stirred such anarchistic fun in slapstick movies like “There’s Something About Mary” and “The Sweetest Thing”.
Throughout the school year, Elizabeth is faced with some unexpected hurdles and graces. She discovers friendship in the form of Lynn (Phyllis Smith, pretty much playing the same character as she does in “The Office”) and the gym teacher Russell (Jason Segel), who seems to be the only other one existing in the real world. She discovers a nemesis in the ultra-perky character of Amy Squirrell (Lucy Punch). And she devotes a bit too much screen time chasing the new substitute teacher Scott (Justin Timberlake. They used to go out in real life. Maybe you heard?).
JT handles the comedy with that deer-in-the-headlights innocence that he is fast perfecting. I won’t let myself ruin it for anyone else, but there is a scene between the former lovers that had to have required dozens, maybe hundreds, of takes. The payoff (or rather payload) is a bold and tasteless punchline that will undoubtedly bring down the house in many, many theaters.
But Elizabeth’s determination to ensnare Scott, in all of his perfect idealism, is a bit puzzling. If he is so ridiculously righteous, doesn’t she know that it would never work between them? Wouldn’t she become as instantly annoyed by his philanthropic viewpoints as I was?
There are some other inconsistent matters that blur the realistic nature of an ineffectual teacher’s day at the office. Why don’t any of the parents notice that their kids are not learning anything in her class? Where are all of the intimidating class clowns who would threaten her control over the student body? And the biggest neglect of all: Why the hell aren’t any of these newly pubescent boys madly in love with her?
But these matters aside, there is a fair amount of laughter to be had with this gruesome story of an attractive teacher’s quest for bigger boobs. The film is truly at its best when Elizabeth rejects the condescending path of phony enlightenment and mentally crumbles her student guideline sheet in order to talk with her students directly. The effect is simultaneously horrific and refreshingly honest.
“Seventh grade is not a really good time for you,” she privately tells one of her romantic male students who specializes in poetry.
I wish some of my former teachers had given it to me straight like that.