Published: June 29, 2011
Directed by Jake Kasdan
Discovered smoking weed in her car on school property and perhaps softened by her buzz, seventh-grade teacher Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) offers some rare advice to the onlooking class suck-up, eager to butter up her uninterested teacher with Christmas cookies. “Stop dressing like you’re running for Congress,” she spits between munches of gingerbread. The overachieving girl replies that she wants to be president. “Keep saying shit like that, you’re gonna get punched,” Elizabeth rejoins.
In this exchange, Diaz’s titular Bad Teacher approaches her sentimental limit. The boozy, bitchy, money-grubbing middle school teacher has a zero-tolerance policy for tenderness and the onus that is educating. On the first day of school, hungover, she slouches into the classroom, pops Stand and Deliver into the DVD player, enshrouds herself in a black sweatshirt, and takes a snooze.
Stuck behind a teacher’s desk after getting dumped by her rich boyfriend, Elizabeth occupies herself with securing another well-to-do chump to leech. This soon surfaces in the form of Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), substitute teacher and heir to a fancy watchmaking fortune. When Scott shows a predilection for buxom women, impoverished Elizabeth fixes her sights on a pricey boob job. She unscrupulously scrounges for cash for the surgery. All the while, she grumps about John Adams Middle School, sniping at everyone save for Scott, who develops a crush on Miss Squirrel (Lucy Punch), the overzealous star teacher at JAMS. Just when you think the galloping plot may begin to weary, Elizabeth’s plump, puppy-dog-eyed colleague Lynn (Phyllis Smith) alerts her to the sizable bonus given for high test scores on the state’s educational assessments. Cue shift in teaching tactics.
Screenwriters Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg routinely inject over-the-top gags, as well as the stuff we’d expect of a workplace comedy penned by authors of episodes of The Office: gross incompetencies, punched up for belly laughs. The array of amusing characters may seem oddly familiar; it’s covered in TV’s fingerprints. Jason Segel’s gym teacher is a dope-smoking, uninhibited version of The Office’s Jim Halpert. Timberlake’s speciously softhearted Scott caricatures Glee’s Will Schuester to irritating effect. Lucy Punch’s zany Miss Squirrel possesses the same kind of crazy that Molly Shannon (who makes a cameo) brought to SNL. Phyllis Smith can’t help but remind you of an ingratiating Phyllis Vance.
While the supporting cast amplifies the movie’s absurdity, the central shtick is Elizabeth’s attitude: She could be a better teacher, but she simply can’t be bothered. Likewise, Bad Teacher totally disregards propriety. Scott tells Elizabeth he ate Ethiopian food on a date: “They finally got their own cuisine,” he gushes. “It’s progress.”
Thankfully, despite the changes Elizabeth undergoes in 92 minutes, she remains as crude and shocking as ever: no trite transformations, no false profundity. Bad Teacher, unlike some of its raunchy counterparts, only aspires to make you laugh. It excels at this. But in regard to substance, the movie resembles Elizabeth: It just doesn’t give a fuck.
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