BAD TEACHER Review

June 26, 2011

Originally published in The Michigan Daily

When you make a “bad” movie, you better damn well make it good. Look at “Superbad” — once the easiest potential target of cleverly disparaging newspaper headlines (“‘Superbad’ is super bad, folks”), and think of the discussions that likely went on between filmmakers and studio execs before titling the film. “Superbad” turned out to be great, and it had to be in order to avoid otherwise inevitable embarrassment.

The people over at Sony and Columbia should be kicking themselves for titling Cameron Diaz’s latest starrer “Bad Teacher,” as in poetic fashion, it seems from inception to have been nothing but bad, bad, bad.

Directed by Jake Kasdan (“Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”), Detroit native and son of ‘U’ alum Lawrence Kasdan, the film follows middle school teacher Elizabeth Halsey (Diaz, “Knight and Day”) whose primary goal in life — aside from seemingly belittling her students and alienating literally every single person she meets — is to find a super-rich guy with whom to settle down.

To that end, she courts straight-laced and baby-faced substitute teacher Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake, “The Social Network”), coincidentally full of money from his family’s watch-brand empire. Working against her is wacky teacher Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch, “Take Me Home Tonight”), who quickly starts to win over the heir due to — at least in Halsey’s limited comprehension — her must more sizable breasts.

So Halsey finds the answer and we find our protagonist’s concocted narrative drive: She must get an inconveniently expensive breast augmentation, for which she must now raise money.

While “Bad Teacher” has a pointless and dully handled premise, its greatest failure is its inability to make its characters, and especially its protagonist, worth rooting for. Keeping a movie audience engaged is a matter of keeping them sympathetic with the characters’ goals, and the unlikeable characters of “Bad Teacher” do little to inspire sympathy or caring.

Cameron Diaz has more talent than she gets credit for, but when she accepts roles like the lead in “Bad Teacher,” it’s understandable why people don’t quite remember. Her character is so unpleasant a person that the film quickly becomes boring, and the surrounding cast is so one-sided that there is little to take stake in. That we are meant to, by the end of the movie, see Halsey as the good girl of it all is no less than insulting.

One of the film’s few positive qualities is the performance of Phyllis Smith (TV’s “The Office”), who plays the innocent, under confident and endearing teacher Lynn. Her part is too small to make much of a difference, but her comedic abilities as shown in “The Office” serve her well here. She’s also better than any other players involved. Jason Segel (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”) is naturally charming as gym teacher Russel Gettis, but his performance is little more than phoned in. He nonetheless delivers some of the film’s most comedic moments, including one in which he asks Halsey, “hold my ball sack.” He’s of course speaking of a giant sack of dodgeballs, and of course the moment is entirely irrelevant to everything. Such are the film’s most comedic moments — already few and far between, and just totally out of the blue. Paired with its unnecessary R rating, the comedy becomes a parade of poop jokes (including some glorious sound design) and F-bombs for F-bombs’ sake.

R-rated comedies are often praised for their uncompromising creativity, as were “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Bridesmaids,” and that other “bad” movie, “Superbad.” “Bad Teacher” is not to be included in such a bunch, as the raunchiness seems no more than tacked on.

“Bad Teacher” is bad (and the lack of creativity in such a sentence is nothing but reflective of how uninspiring the film truly is). While such badness could be somewhat redeemed by a general sense of purpose in the finished product or at least a good effort from the leads, the film falls far short of either.

By the end of the story — a story structured around the unfinished and unrewarding arcs of a poorly developed cast of characters — there is little to take away. “Bad Teacher” has nothing to teach, and plenty to learn.

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