THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
If Cameron Diaz had been my seventh grade teacher, I'd have never left middle school.
Bad Teacher is an example of a movie that works and doesn't work at the same time. Is that confusing? Here's what I mean: this comedy has some serious flaws, most notably that it never fulfills the potential of its premise. At the same time, it has a number of qualities that I rather enjoyed. I laughed and had fun, but in the back of my head, I kept thinking, "This should have been a home run." Weird, huh? A picture like this only comes along once in a great while.
Cameron Diaz stars as Elizabeth Halsey, a gold-digging 7th grade teacher who has been unceremoniously dumped by her rich fiancée. Her anger over this catastrophe causes her to stop caring about her job. She shows her students movies while she sleeps at her desk, verbally abuses them, and smokes weed in her car out in the parking lot. Desperately wanting to be "kept" so that she can stop working, Elizabeth sees an opportunity when new substitute teacher Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake) arrives at the school. He comes from a wealthy family and seems suitably naïve. Elizabeth's big plan is to get breast enlargement surgery and woo the new guy. The problem is that she doesn't have enough money to pay for implants. Her entire school year is spent trying to find ways to earn cash, including hijacking a student car washing fundraiser and taking bribes from parents. Two people are on to her little scam. One is a goody-goody fellow teacher, Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch), who also has her sights on Scott, and the other is the school gym teacher, Russell Gettis (Jason Segel), who secretly shares Elizabeth's "screw the system" attitude.
Bad Teacher promises to be a down-and-dirty, politically incorrect comedy. And, to be fair, it does contain a bunch of moments in that vein. Not enough of them, though. The screenplay, by "The Office" scribes Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, tends to pull back right when it should be going for the jugular. I kept waiting for an unrepentantly mean edge to reveal itself, and one never quite did. The very concept of a teacher who has stopped caring about the kids, education, and her own ethics is pretty shocking. (And let's face it - we all had at least one teacher in our formative years who'd grown apathetic.) With some more courage, the film could really have been deliciously, hilariously dark. Instead, it's a slap as opposed to a gut punch. A lack of story structure emphasizes that problem. The plot is more episodic than streamlined, bouncing from one thing to another, sometimes almost randomly.
Individual moments, however, work exceedingly well. I got two huge laughs out of Bad Teacher - one from a scene set in a bathroom, and the other from a sexual encounter between Elizabeth and Scott - and many more chuckles. While they may not congeal into something fully formed, the bits that work are certainly entertaining. It helps that all the roles are so beautifully cast. Every actor works tirelessly to find the humor in the material. Diaz clearly relishes the chance to play nasty, Timberlake gleefully jumps right into full dork mode, and Segel brings a nice sense of cynicism to his gym teacher. Lucy Punch (Dinner For Schmucks) is solid too, playing the prissy foil to Diaz's pissy schemer. John Michael Higgins, Thomas Lennon, and Phyllis Smith (also from "The Office") do strong character work in supporting parts.
I wavered on whether to give Bad Teacher two-and-a-half stars (meaning "close, but no cigar") or three (meaning "I liked it"). After some internal debate, I'm going with three, for a very simple reason: this is a movie I'll pop in the DVD player and watch again some evening when I'm tired and just want to kick back for 90 minutes. Even though the picture is far from perfect, I was never less than amused. The terrific cast and some individual bits of comedy were enough to keep me invested and to put a smile on my face for a little while.
( out of four)
Bad Teacher is rated R for sexual content, nudity, language and some drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 32 minutes.