Cameron Diaz as Elizabeth Halsey
Justin Timberlake as Scott Delacorte
Lucy Punch as Amy Squirrel
John Michael Higgins as Principal Wally Snur
Jason Segel as Russell Gettis
Phyllis Smith as Lynn Davies
Thomas Lennon as Carl Halabi
Eric Stonestreet as Kirk
Directed by Jake Kasdan
Cameron Diaz stars as Elizabeth Halsey, a drug-addled gold-digger whose most recent attempt to marry her way into the high life has failed miserably and has lead to her teaching at an Illinois middle school. When another new teacher, Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), shows up and proves to come from a wealthy family, Elizabeth decides that a winning him over might be her way out.
“Bad Teacher” is a film without shame or apology, featuring Diaz as a morally reprehensible lead driven by contemptible motivations and a script begging to be picked to pieces for its lack of ethics and potential misogynistic overtones. It also currently clocks in as the year’s flat-out funniest big screen release.
Inevitably destined for comparison to “Bridesmaids” and that film’s own R-rated, female-driven “raunch” factor, “Bad Teacher” does come up short as anything but a comedy. The cinematic equivalent of empty calories, Diaz’s turn as the “Bad Lieutenant” of the public education system nevertheless makes for a very, very tasty dessert, especially in the wake of the not-quite-there ignominy of summer fare like “The Hangover Part II.”
Interestingly, both “Bridesmaids” and “Bad Teacher” have some common ground through the short-lived but increasingly influential television series “Freaks and Geeks.” That show, created and written by the former film’s Paul Feig, featured “Teacher” director Jake Kasdan at the helm of the pilot and several series episodes. Feig even manages a super-brief cameo in “Teacher” as one of the fathers attending Halsey’s provocative car wash fundraiser.
Though some have already decried Diaz’s turn as Elizabeth Halsey as a troublesome blow to the way that Hollywood looks at women, a viewer would be hard-pressed to not see some element of satire in the way “Teacher” unfolds. Pointedly on a vapid, self-serving mission, Ms. Halsey’s chief motivation is to earn enough money for breast-enlargement surgery after which, she’s sure, she’ll be able to land a rich husband and never have to work again. It’s only a gag because it is so ridiculous a character reduction and Diaz is certainly in on the joke, turning in the best performance of her career and one that offers a sly nod to some of her past roles built on little more than sex appeal.
Surrounding Diaz is a strong supporting cast with Lucy Punch a true scene-stealer. In a world where the audience is rooting for an awful person like Elizabeth, it’s a challenge to create a villain that comes off as even worse. Punch plays her goody two-shoes teacher, Amy Squirrel, with a pitch-perfect understanding of the just-a-nudge-to-the-fantastic world of the film.
The male leads are a bit less successful with Justin Timberlake turning in a solid-but-far-from-groundbreaking performance that does veer a little too close to self-parody and Jason Segel offering a likeable-but-surprisingly-brief turn as a gym teacher and romantic interest to Halsey. Though smaller roles, Thomas Lennon, Phyllis Smith and John Michael Higgins manage more laughs with “Modern Family” star Eric Stonestreet grabbing one of the movie’s best gags.
As much as “Teacher” asks its audience to revel in the degeneration of it all, there’s a intangible wink that keeps even the basest sight gags all in good fun and, in a pleasant move, the film replaces visual cues that would have once involved cigarettes with marijuana instead. The effect is that tobacco is downplayed without sacrificing any of the film’s “edge” and pot is treated with a bit more realistic an approach than, as in many studio comedies, an hallucinogenic montage.
The Bottom Line:
In some ways a spiritual sequel to “Bad Santa,” “Bad Teacher” may not be for everyone and doesn’t have quite the dramatic spine to support itself as anything other than a raunchy comedy. If that’s what you’re looking for, though, it offers more frequent laughs than anything else this year and should stand up nicely to repeat viewings.