School’s out for summer. No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks. But looks aren’t the only thing dirty about Bad Teacher. But for all its potential, I get the feeling that The Office writers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky are hoping that the critics will grade on a curve.
Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) is the titular bad teacher. She’d planned on getting out of her day job after her first year and marry into money, but that gets called off at the last minute when it dawns on her fiancé that she’s a shallow gold-digger. So three months later she’s back at John Adams Middle School telling how she caught him cheating on her — with another woman, another man, his dog, and his sister, in that order. She is living in a crappy apartment with some guy she met on Craigslist (Eric Stonestreet, playing way against his Modern Family type), and not giving a teacher’s darn about anything except the expensive breast enlargement she hopes will help ensnare another rich mark. In the meantime she plays movies in class every day — ones with educational content of course, like Stand and Deliver, Lean On Me, Dangerous Minds, and the classroom murder from Scream — while swigging from airplane bottles of liquor stashed in a secret desk drawer and getting high in her hatchback in the school’s parking lot.
At the other end of the spectrum is Amy Squirrell (Lucy Punch), who’s the sort of teacher who really, truly means the campy persona that many affect for their classroom manner. This is the sort of person who uses the word “bonkers” in anger without the slightest hint of irony. As Elizabeth’s diametric opposite, of course she’s got it in for her colleague. This seems to be a somewhat regular occurrence, to the point that the similarly-earnest Principal Snur (John Michael Higgins) frets about a repeat of “2008” — evidently Elizabeth’s own noodle incident.
The two really clash over the affections of the new substitute, Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake playing the nerd). In terms of personality he’s clearly the better match for Amy, but he’s also heir to a rather sizable fortune, which sets Elizabeth on his tail. And then scattered into the mix we have Lynn Davies (Phyllis Smith, in basically a rehash of her Office role) as the timid and ingratiating type, Sandy Pinkus (Dave “Gruber” Allen) as the real geek among the cast, and Russell Gettis (Jason Segel) as the gym teacher and the closest to Elizabeth as one could get and still take teaching seriously.
I don’t think I saw anyone really living up to their potential. Timberlake would be far better as the nerd who’s actually cool and centered underneath his tragically unhip demeanor, but here he’s just a wet noodle. Segel doesn’t get nearly enough screen time to justify his role as the moral center. And while Diaz brings the same grace and aplomb as she did to There’s Something About Mary, there’s just too little good material for her to work with. It reflects well on her that she’s willing to be so unglamorous — c.f. her performance in Being John Malkovich — and I do give the screenwriters credit for not going the easy route and actually reforming her character by the end, but far too much time is spent on cheap prurient or scatological gags.
Elizabeth is clearly at her best when acting as the lone realistically contrarian voice among the teachers — the one person who will level with her student Garrett (Matthew J. Evans) that the girl he pines for will never be interested in him and that saying he’s sensitive is not a compliment — and she does manage to turn that to good use by the end. But given that this is clearly her forte, I would have loved to see more of it. And as cathartic as I’m sure it might be for actual teachers to watch someone just put on movies day after day and damn the consequences, I think it would be even more cathartic to see more of this sort of advice. How many tween and teen dramas do middle and high school teachers watch play out around them year after year, and how great would it be to be able to grab the kid who’s clearly digging his own grave and slap him out of it? And if you know you’d lose your job for speaking so frankly, wouldn’t it be nice to watch someone else get away with it?
But instead Bad Teacher blows its potential, takes the easy way out, and does the bare minimum necessary to justify its premise. I’m not mad about it; I’m just disappointed.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: pass.