Friday, June 24, 2011

Bad Teacher

Waiting For Superwoman, And Some Saucy Lessons

Cameron Diaz as Elizabeth Halsey and Lucy Punch as Amy Squirrel in Jake Kasdan's "Bad Teacher". 
Sony Pictures

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
day, June 24, 2011

Did you ever have a crush on any of your school teachers?  I didn't, although years ago at my grade school in England one of my teachers wrote on my report card book that I was "very attractive."  (Heck, she was 52, and I was 8.) 

In "Bad Teacher" age differences are less an issue, and the seventh-grade students at John Adams Middle School in Illinois are more likely to run from their very attractive teacher Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) than they are to ask her out on an inappropriate date.

Elizabeth makes no bones about her re-visit to her former job at John Adams to teach: she needs the money (as modest as teacher pay is) for breast implants.  Her wedding plans to a sugar daddy go up in flames.  She forgets the names of students that she'd rather tell to take a flying leap, and spends her teaching time showing movies of other well-known classroom dramas to her students while she snoozes or does drugs.  ("Blackboard Jungle" and "To Sir With Love" were not harmed as part of Elizabeth's lesson plan.)

Welcome to Jake Kasdan's "Bad Teacher", a funny, sexy and subversive comedy that makes fun not only of the classroom drama genre film but spits in its eye along the way, with an homage of sorts to Terry Zwigoff's "Bad Santa", although Mr. Kasdan's film doesn't go quite as far with its incorrectness as Mr. Zwigoff's memorable comedy did.  Still, Mr. Kasdan's film is a good, if not great one, even if the material generating its comedy isn't strong or sustaining throughout.

In a sea of over-the-top scatological comedies (most recently "Bridesmaids"), "Bad Teacher" is a good experience because it restrains itself, maintaining its wink-wink, nudge-nudge know-how when it would have been easier (and lazier) to abandon all of its comedic pretenses, go for the gusto and have an all-out potty party.  The idea of a teacher being bad is what the film promotes so well, and it relies on the requisite performance by Ms. Diaz to do so.  In this vein Mr. Kasdan's film is an unqualified success.  The film, at barely 90 minutes isn't overstuffed or clouded by sight gags.  The laughs aren't continuous but "Bad Teacher", even with a lull here and there remains enjoyable.  Most of all I enjoyed the approach the actors took to the film.

The performances in Mr. Kasdan's comedy are reigned in and though the material written by Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg isn't exactly novel, the actors' approach to it is.  Lucy Punch ("You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger") is great as Amy Squirrel, a rival teacher threatened by Elizabeth's cozying up to an upper-middle class suburban substitute teacher (Justin Timberlake, very good as a parodying character of understatement.)  Phyllis Smith adds warmth and sweetness as Lynn, Elizabeth's teaching colleague.  For once, Lynn as a character type isn't the butt of the jokes many movie comedies find irresistible, and she gets to partake in them, using comedic devices to her advantage.  We laugh with her, not at her.

We know that Elizabeth is a teacher unhappy with herself and she takes it out on her poor, exasperated students.  If teachers get no respect, Elizabeth is a teacher who gives none.  She says what's on her mind though doesn't really express how she feels about herself.  And like its lead character "Bad Teacher" lets us in only so much.  Comedy comes from pain and truth but we generally don't see where Elizabeth's comes from, though it's not required to be fully explained.  In "Bridesmaids" it was the lead character's anxieties about loneliness, her married friends and men.  Kristen Wiig's work in it was sharp.  ("Bridesmaids" director Paul Feig has a cameo in "Bad Teacher" at a carwash.)

Overall, Ms. Diaz' performance is sly, smart and light.  She takes Elizabeth and sends her up in playful style not as a teacher from the Ninth Circle of Hell but as a rambunctious, opportunistic Go Daddy gal.  Ms. Diaz shows fleeting moments of the emptiness that flickers in her eyes.  Attractive, ambitious and adventurous, Ms. Diaz underplays but balances Elizabeth, making her contemptible, charming and engaging.  She has little edge and pushes the envelope only so much, leaving you wanting more.  Had the writing been sharper and punchier, "Bad Teacher" would have ascended to greater heights. 

"Bad Teacher" has other flaws.  A third character, a physical education teacher (Jason Segel) is unnecessary, brought in to more or less hang around the edges of the film in case something good happens to him.  Nonetheless, Mr. Segel dials down his usual onscreen persona to good effect as a semi-serious, lonely, underachieving teacher.  Even with their good work, the film's male characters are somewhat lost, serving as comedic stooges or foils for the much stronger work by the women, who ably do the film's heavy lifting.  As a comment on its lead character some scenes don't fit the tenor of the film at all, either as transition pieces or central ones, including those with Elizabeth's male roommate, who eventually makes his mark in the film in a funny way.

While we've heard over the years about teachers who have illicit relations with under-aged students, Elizabeth eschews this path and relates to these mostly moping, goody-two-shoes kids in her inimitable way.  Elizabeth is far too smart to engage in such moral misadventures.  She loves her breasts too much.

With: John Michael Higgins, Matthew J. Evans, Kaitlyn Dever, Noah Munck, Thomas Lennon, Kathryn Newton, Eric Stonestreet, Aja Bair, David Paymer, Igal Ben Yair, Molly Shannon, Rick Overton, Alanna Ubach.

"Bad Teacher" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for sexual content, nudity, language and some drug use.  The film's running time is one hour and 32 minutes.

COPYRIGHT 2011.  POPCORNREEL.COM.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.                Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW

"movie reviews" via popcornreel in Google Reader