If the primary goal of a summertime trip to the movies is sitting in an air-conditioned room for some predictable chuckles with one of Hollywood’s most box office-friendly personalities, then Bad Teacher fulfills its obligations. You’ve got Cameron Diaz playing 'Hottie Maneater With A Foul Mouth', Jason Segel as 'Guy You’d Want To Hang Out With', and 'Justin “Look At Me Trying Not To Be Sexy!” Timberlake.'
But while Bad Teacher has a few solid laughs and a supporting cast of extremely talented comedians (Reno 911!’s Thomas Lennon, Phyllis Smith of The Office, John Michael Higgins), the writing falls flat. This is not a movie anyone will be quoting at parties.
Diaz plays Elizabeth Halsey, a beyond-apathetic middle-school teacher whose life plan as a trophy wife is interrupted when it occurs to her fiance that the only thing she loves about him is his bank account. Bitter and broke, she is forced to return to the teaching job she thought she’d quit for good. Her only hope for escaping a blase working class lifestyle lies in saving, swindling, and embezzling enough cash for the breast implants that will increase her man candy status from 8 to a 10.
The goal: Woo the cute, goody two-shoes substitute teacher, Scott (Timberlake), who happens to be the heir to his family fortune and, who, unlike sarcastic gym teacher Russell (Segel), is not clamoring to get in her pants. Standing in the way of her man and her ability to scrape by doing the bare minimum is her arch nemesis, Amy (Lucy Punch), the judgmental, over-optimistic teacher shooting death glares from across the hall.
For some reason, comedies about school tend to rely disproportionately on contrived and completely unrealistic plotlines. This one is no different. Yet most, unlike Bad Teacher, take themselves just seriously enough that you make yourself sick eye-rolling every time the misunderstood anti-hero succeeds, only because his heart is in the right place, not because that’s what would actually happen (we're talking to you, Charlie Bartlett and School of Rock).
But refreshingly, Bad Teacher never takes itself even remotely seriously. It’s somehow totally unimportant that while the entire premise of the film is based on the fact that no one can prove that Elizabeth does anything in her class beyond sleeping off hangovers at her desk, no one (other than her overachieving nemesis) at the supposedly high-achieving school bothers to actually check. Though at some point the audience should probably think, “If the principal stuck his head in the classroom even one time or just asked for an example of student work, her game would be toast!” it’s much more fun to just forget about it root for Elizabeth, crossing your fingers that her manipulative, criminal schemes and overwhelming lack of interest in the well-being of others will triumph. None of the characters are particularly good people in the first place, so there’s no moral high-ground to defend. The students are a minimal concern.
However, if you’re going to have a comedy that dismisses character development for the sake of ridiculousness, it has to be worth it. The jokes must be very clever and plentiful, and in this case, they’re not. Timberlake, Segel, and Diaz each have their own brand of “charmingly vulgar” and good comic timing. So while they can carry the more outrageous scenes and elicit laughs, it’s often the context of the scene that’s funnier than the actual content.
A straight-A student catching Diaz smoking pot in the school parking lot is a funny situation. As is a student’s family inviting her over for an awkward Christmas dinner after spotting her with a homeless man. As is Timberlake having a really fun time chaperoning the middle school dance. Unfortunately, you spend the movie waiting for one of these to really crack you up, but none hit the mark. Bad Teacher makes for an enjoyable two hours, but it doesn’t begin to do its talent justice.
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