Despite what the title might imply, Bad Teacher is not a sequel in a future line of films designed to be a "Bad" franchise (oh, but think of the possibilities! Bad Gardener! Bad Tax Accountant! Bad Communist Party Chairman!). It does, however, carbon copy more than its share of elements from 2003's almost painfully funny Bad Santa. Where Billy Bob Thornton once inflicted misery on the cheerful folk around him and horrified parents and children alike as a salacious, drunken, thieving wreck of a shopping mall Santa, Cameron Diaz now steps in to inflict misery on cheerful folk and horrify children and faculty alike as a salacious, drunken, thieving wreck of a middle school teacher.
Except one key ingredient is missing from this film's equation: Funny. Where Bad Santa was top-to-bottom hysterical misanthropy, Bad Teacher is top-to-bottom forced misanthropy. Where Bad Santa had a fully fleshed-out disaster of a human being at the center of its story, Bad Teacher has only a loosely-sketched caricature of a miserable harlot at the center of its story, one whose sociopathic behavior never manages to become even a little bit endearing. There are good actors and actresses in this movie, and they're all trying very hard. Perhaps that's the issue. Where a movie like Bad Santa felt effortlessly crude, Bad Teacher is going to absurd lengths to show you how crude it can be. When you have to try to be bad, that's not good.
Credit to Cameron Diaz for giving it a solid go. She is, at the very least, believably mean-spirited as Elizabeth Halsey, a gold-digging, hard-partying schoolteacher who views her current gig at John Adams Middle School as a stop-gap until she can land a rich husband. Her previous attempt at financial stability via marriage is, much to her chagrin, foiled by her former fiancee's careful accountant, thus forcing her to endure yet another year with the anonymous rapscallions in her class, and the intolerable squares of the school's faculty.
Most of the movie consists of Diaz going to great lengths to procure funds for an upcoming breast enlargement. She tricks parents into paying for fake tutoring, sluts it up at a car wash fundraiser for a 7th grade field trip (keeping the "tips" for herself) and even seduces a lowly government employee to procure test answers so she can get a performance bonus. All the while, she makes eyes at a new substitute teacher (Justin Timberlake) who comes from a wealthy family background and ridiculously superficial liberal ideals seem culled from the back of a cereal box. This enrages a psychotic do-gooder of a rival teacher (Lucy Punch), and simply bemuses the school's gym teacher (Jason Segel), who mostly just rolls along with Diaz's insidious plans while periodically making passes at her.
If you're waiting for me to get to the part where stuff happens, you'll have to keep waiting. Bad Teacher is like a series of loosely-connected sketches with Diaz's inherent awfulness being the only thematic constant. Apart from the fact that she's incredibly lazy and substitutes watching movies for actual lesson plans, she doesn't even do all that much in the way of terrible stuff to the kids. She never even learns their names, and to that end, we never even get to a point of viewing them as real characters in the movie. They're practically cardboard cutouts. A potentially interesting plot thread involving an uptight, overachieving girl in her class never goes anywhere. Instead, the movie almost entirely focuses on Diaz and Punch's ever-escalating arms race over Timberlake, which might've been interesting were Timberlake's character more than a single-joke doof. He's fine in the role, but the writing does him no favors.
Screenwriters Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, who also wrote the stupefyingly bad Year One, seem completely befuddled by concepts like "plot" and "characters." They have vague notions of these things and how they work, but can't quite seem to put all the pieces together necessary to make the whole thing fly as a real movie should. Bad Teacher almost flirts with these concepts when Diaz goes on her test answer acquisition mission, but then the script pretty much abandons any of that momentum in favor of more predictably lame bits that go almost nowhere, followed by an astoundingly out-of-nowhere "lesson learned" moment for Diaz that's wholly unearned.
Director Jake Kasdan, who has had better luck (at least artistically, if not commercially) with off-kilter comedies like Walk Hard and Zero Effect, seems generally lost when trying to construct a real movie out of such loose and broadly dumb material. Most of his direction seems to entail telling everyone to dial up one character trait to eleven, and forget about anything else. Punch seems to take this most to heart, though she is admittedly reasonably funny in her most unhinged moments. Segel is also a welcome presence, as he all but ignores any direction altogether in favor of playing Jason Segel as a gym teacher. He seemingly revels in saying the kind of dickish, sarcastic things that the audience is usually thinking about whatever idiotic character he's sharing a space with. Without Segel, this movie would be unbearable.
There are other standouts, including John Michael Higgins as the tremendously boring school principal, and Phyllis Smith as an adorably bookish and confidence-lacking fellow teacher who follows Diaz around like a lost puppy, but by and large, their talents are wasted in service of Diaz's endless smirking and swearing. It's not even that Diaz is bad, it's just that there's nothing to latch onto with Elizabeth Halsey. She's just nasty, bereft of even a loveable kind of sociopathy. Diaz deserves her kudos for reminding us that she is fully capable of being incredibly funny in black-hearted comedy; she just deserves a better movie to serve as that reminder.
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