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Bad Teacher Just Isn’t What It Hopes (Or Thinks) It Is

Bad Teacher
Directed by Jake Kasdan
Written by Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg
Sony, 2011

Jake Kasdan had a promising career back in 1997 when he wrote and directed Zero Effect, still one of the most overlooked movies of the past 15 years.  The son of Lawrence Kasdan, the man who made movies like The Big Chill and Body Heat and wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark,  has made 3 other movies with varying degrees of success: Orange County, The TV Set, and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, none of which has built on that earlier promise, although Walk Hard is one of those movies that continue to find fans and has become a cult classic.

Here, the filmmakers basically rewarm Richard Linklater’s 2003 hit School of Rock and add some of the “bad” from that same year’s Bad Santa and puts in Cameron Diaz for the Jack Black/Billy Bob Thornton combo.  Diaz plays Elizabeth Halsey, a teacher at a middle school who was just about to leave the teaching life after just one year, getting married to an uber-rich suitor (Nat Faxon) before he dumps her, leaving her poor and going back to teaching.

Halsey’s idea of teaching is to show movies to her English class, starting with Stand and Deliver, working her way to Lean On Me and Dangerous Minds, and one surprise film that might elicit the movie’s best laugh.  You see, she drinks and smokes (cigarettes and weed), and she comes in hungover most of the time.  She can’t be bothered to do a decent job, and she pulls the wool over everyone’s eyes, at least the one who counts, Principal Wally Snur (John Michael Higgins).

Elizabeth gets the idea that she needs bigger boobs.  The new hot (rich) teacher in school, Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake) is getting over a relationship with a girl with large breasts, so Elizabeth makes it her mission to find sneaky ways to raise money to get implants and get another rich man.  It starts with the car wash, where Elizabeth takes most of the money rather than giving it to the school. Her cross-hall teacher/rival, Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch), is onto her though, and hopes to crush Elizabeth in everything. If she weren’t so creepy she’d have credibility.  Squirrel wants Scott, too.

Elizabeth gets off her ass when she finds out she can win $5700 if her students score the highest on a state aptitude test, but of course teaching is too hard so she has to find a sneakier way to accomplish that goal.  Meanwhile, we see the real romantic interest in the film, the always likeable Jason Segel, playing gym teacher Russell Gettis, who might have a shot if he didn’t get paid like a middle school gym teacher.  Gettis is the funniest character in the movie, but this is all about Elizabeth and her crazy bad teacher ways.

While there are great supporting turns from Segel, The Office’s Phyllis Smith, and Modern Family’s Eric Stonestreet, this movie tries to implement all those things we liked about School of Rock and Bad Santa but it comes off a bit desperate.  The scene where Elizabeth tries a little girl’s cookies and remarks, “These cookies suck,” is the type of humor we get from this movie.  The problem with Elizabeth’s character is she’s never very likeable from the beginning.  We’re supposed to root for a shallow gold-digger?  She’s not been scorned in an unfair way, she hasn’t been made into this character by various occurrences, she is this person, by birth.  The movie inserts the crazy-eyed Amy Squirrel to be Elizabeth’s counterpoint, the “Elizabeth looks good by comparison” to cheat its way into making Elizabeth the protagonist of the picture.  This doesn’t work.

It comes off sounding sexist when I say that Elizabeth’s bad behavior isn’t as entertaining as Jack Black or Billy Bob Thornton’s in similar pictures.  Thornton’s character in Bad Santa may have had no redeemable qualities, but he was already a bad guy, a criminal, when the picture started.  He’s a bad guy, and he does bad things.  Elizabeth is usually the character in movies we see only briefly; the girl who just isn’t the right one for the male protagonist.  It would have helped her character be more relatable if she had pure motives, tried to do the right thing in the past, but found out nice girls finish last.  Then all of the actions in the movie take on a different context, rather than, “Ha ha, it’s Cameron Diaz and she’s bad.”

I had some hopes for this one, but it falls short.

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