By Michael Koresky and Fernando F. Croce
Jake Kasdanâ€™s scouring indictment of American education lays bare the gaping holes and blind spots of the standardized testing system that became the norm for public schools across the United States in the wake of No Child Left Behind. In it, Cameron Diaz stars as a klutzy but loveable seventh-grade instructor who, so fed up with the misguided and ineffective quick fixes of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, blazes a trail by opening her own charter school and, despite crippling self-doubt and a proclivity to fall face-down while trying to walk in stilettos, brings her students to a triumphant final stretch at the state tests. No, wait, my mistakeâ€”Bad Teacher is actually about a divorced gold-digger who soldiers through a year teaching junior high schoolers so she can raise money for a boob job. Its most vibrant performance is by an actor (Jason Segel) who seems to have shown up for a few days of work and improvised some lines that show nothing but contempt for the film around him. Its most impressive constant is how deplorably every soul in its cheery small town U.S.A. seems to act. Its funniest, most human, moment is when we hear a shy preteen unleash a cascade of poop he was holding in until an unwelcome female teacher has left the boysâ€™ room.
Otherwise, itâ€™s unclear from where Bad Teacherâ€™s humor emanates. Neither aiming for the surreal, freeform hijinks of Stepbrothers nor the ingratiating character-based comedy of a film like Bridesmaids, Bad Teacher is somewhere in the confusing middle, a broad-side-of-the-barn collection of yuks that donâ€™t add up. Aiming for the â€śpeople behaving badly around kidsâ€ť brand of shock comedy typified by Bad Santa, Kasdanâ€™s film is a particularly lazy bit of provocation that doesnâ€™t know whether to use its protagonist as a vice-ridden but redeemable antiheroine or a worthless, destructive layabout (she gets high on school property, but thatâ€™s nothing compared to her head-on-desk Monday morning hangovers, which help the film veer into Half Nelson territory). Itâ€™s hard to conceive of why any of the filmâ€™s characters are worthy of our time since they are so ill-defined, even as vessels for laughs. Lucy Punchâ€™s sunshine-y teacher nemesis toggles between being the filmâ€™s antagonist and righteous truth-teller. Justin Timberlakeâ€™s eternally employed substitute teacher is an odd mix of stylish and provincial, a perfectly coiffed dude in hipster duds who condemns abortion and mocks Ethiopian restaurants (it doesnâ€™t help that Timberlake does that Timberlake thing where he makes acting itself seem like the joke). Segelâ€™s gym teacher continues to pine for Diaz, even after months of nasty rebuffing and even though Segel is the only actor who emits any sort of intelligence on camera.
Most damning, though, is that the film refuses to answer the one basic question that must have come to mind for anyone who watched even the trailer: Whatâ€™s her story? Why on earth did this woman, who hates children, seems borderline illiterate, and is only interested in her own physical proportions, become a teacher and why was she hired at this school, the faculty of which seems to consider her a joke from the get-go? Things like motivation and background shouldnâ€™t be considered such negligible attributes even in kooky comedies. Otherwise, how do we know what weâ€™re supposed to laugh at? Besides, of course, the echoing sound of shit dropping into a toilet. â€”MK
Clearly, Michael, we know what weâ€™re supposed to laugh at because the movie keeps prodding us. Remember the insert of the dopily slack-jawed kid in class? Which pops up twice? In two different scenes? Though lack of form and rhythm have sadly become the norm for American comedy, the shoddiness of Bad Teacher is especially surprising as it comes from Jake Kasdan, who in Zero Effect and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story showed more of a gift for comic construction than most of his Apatow-weaned peers. Indeed, his last film, a parody of songbird biopics, had me hoping against all hope that this would have been a sharp send-up of the mawkish noble-educator genre responsible for Stand and Deliver and Dangerous Minds. Instead, those movies are flaccidly used as nudge-nudge clips during the many montages that transplant Bad Santaâ€™s solitary jokeâ€”Bukowski as Kris Kringleâ€”to Cameron Diazâ€™s game but essentially adrift babe-goes-slob act. Diazâ€™s gold-digging skank might have been the stuff of risky comedy if she didnâ€™t exist in a vacuum of missed opportunities and fumbled setups, if her venal hostility were a facet of a raging character and not just stringy adhesive for faux-edgy, Diaz-behaves-badly gags that were already rancid ten years ago in The Sweetest Thing.
As is often the case in even the laziest comedies, fleeting pleasure comes from some of the supporting players. Despite a commonplace, Palinesque American accent, Lucy Punch delivers a full-bodied essay on cheerily straitjacketed fury as Diazâ€™s passive-aggressive nemesis, and a bit in which she momentarily loses control of her beaming-chipmunk lips is the filmâ€™s one, welcome instance of surrealism. I also enjoyed John Michael Higginsâ€™s note of Christopher Guest-ian deadpan as a principal obsessed with dolphins and Phyllis Smithâ€™s miniature symphonies of moans and broken murmurs as Diaz's timid colleague: both of them could teach Justin Timberlake (whose playing of an effete substitute teacher is supposed to be funny because, well, itâ€™s Justin Timberlake playing an effete substitute teacher) a thing or two about comic acting. Still, I agree that the one likable presence belongs to Jason Segel, whose Dean Martin-like undisguised disdain for the whole project blows like a breeze through Bad Teacherâ€™s smog of calculated meanness. Thereâ€™s not enough of him, however, to counterbalance the agonizing sequence in which Diaz and Timberlake dry-hump, a moment of meta-ickiness that both draws on knowledge of the performersâ€™ personal past together and stands as an accidental metaphor for the filmâ€™s circumscribed joylessness. It's enough to make one look back fondly on the Jon Lovitz vehicle High School High. â€”FC