In what’s almost certainly the low point in her career, here we have Cameron Diaz in a “raunchy” comedy about a teacher who shouldn’t be teaching. How she managed to get her first teaching job is beyond me, and after her fiancé leaves her, she is somehow convincing enough to get back her job that she could only hold down for one year. Her name is Elizabeth Halsey, and she is the “bad teacher” from the film’s title.
Let’s go over just how bad she is. For the first few months of the school year, she has her class watch movies. Worse than that, 2/3 of the movies we see them watching are in full screen, meaning they’ve been modified from their original format. She doesn’t do any actual teaching, she doesn’t care about her students, she hates all of her co-workers, she does drugs, she swears a lot, and she’s single because her fiancé found out she was only in it for the money. And, let me reiterate here: She forces impressionable young minds to watch full screen movies. She is, without a doubt, the worst kind of person.
And yet, she has a teaching job. Now that she’s not in a relationship, she decides that she needs a man who will take care of her. Enter substitute teacher Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), who is rich, smart, and good looking. He’s an obvious target, I suppose, for the type of person that Elizabeth is. The only problems are that he’s “just” coming off a relationship (it’s been a year), and that he has eyes for the teacher working across the hall from Elizabeth, Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch). You guessed it: Amy and Elizabeth will become rivals.
At first, it’s clear exactly which character we should be rooting for. Amy, while not necessarily a teacher we would want to have (she’s a little bit too enthusiastic and nice), is at least a seemingly good person. Elizabeth, like the tagline suggests, simply doesn’t care. However, as Bad Teacher progresses, we begin seeing some flaws in all of the supporting cast, including Amy (there was an “incident” in 2008), and Elizabeth stops looking like such a terrible person.
This poses a problem to the story, which attempts to have Elizabeth redeem herself, largely using the students as her avatar to do so. If there’s a kid having trouble with the popular girl, for example, while advising him, she’ll learn something about herself. The problem is that she’s not too terrible to begin with, and any redemption feels artificial. We’re not even sure why she acts the way she does, as it doesn’t seem to make her happy. She acts “bad” because it’s what the story requires, but will also flip that switch whenever that’s required as well.
By making all of the other characters have crippling flaws, the audience isn’t exactly sure who, if anyone, to root for. Elizabeth is more of an anti-hero, while the rest of the cast is nobody in particular. In creating cartoon characters with ambiguous traits, the filmmakers have robbed us of being able to grasp hold of anything within the story.
The exception to this is Jason Segel’s lovable gym teacher. He’s pretty much the only normal character in the film, although he is pretty much wasted. In every scene that we see him, his purpose is to try to convince Elizabeth that they should become a couple. I have to question why he would want someone like her in the first place, and why he would devote so much of his time to the task, but at least with him, what you see is what you get.
So, basically what we have here with Bad Teacher is a “raunchy” comedy about character we can’t understand, a basic and fairly solid idea ruined by decisions made by the filmmakers, and a morality lesson that doesn’t work because by the time it comes up, you’re not going to be caring about anything the film has to say. This is a good idea handled poorly, even if it does still have some enjoyable moments.
I’ve put “raunchy” in quotation marks a couple of times now, and I suppose I should explain why. This isn’t a boundary-pushing film, and if you’ve managed to handle similar “raunchy” films over the last few years, Bad Teacher isn’t going to come close to offending you. That doesn’t necessarily stop it from being funny — there were some points in the film where I laughed, don’t get me wrong — but don’t go in expecting to come out wondering how the film got its R rating.
Despite not being given much to work with, the cast members come as the film’s saviors. While Diaz hasn’t exactly done anything memorable in recent memory, she’s actually, somehow, quite good here. She’s too charming and likable for the role, but she seems to effortlessly glide into becoming the prototype for an awful teacher. Lucy Punch (pulling off a flawless American accent), is likewise almost disturbing in a too-nice-to-real sort of way. Supporting cast members like Phyllis Smith and John Michael Higgins, along with the aforementioned Timberlake and Segel, are all suitable.
Bad Teacher is a good idea wasted before eventually almost being redeemed by its cast. The good idea was a terrible teacher having to figure out how to improve her life thanks to the students and staff surrounding her. It was wasted because I couldn’t believe anything that went on. The cast was strong enough to almost make the film worth watching, and there were some scenes that made me chuckle. Diaz fans will definitely want to give it a watch, while those that aren’t probably won’t.