REVIEW: Bad Teacher

Bad Teacher
Directed by: Jake Kasdan
Written by: Gene Stupnitsky & Lee Eisenberg
Starring: Cameron Diaz, Lucy Punch, Jason Segel, and Justin Timberlake

Who knew that the winds of change would start blowing in formulaic summer comedies?  Last summer, Bad Teacher may have been a sequel to Bad Santa that had Billy Bob Thornton reprising one of his most infamous roles.  Instead, it’s become a female-driven vehicle for Cameron Diaz.

Paired with Bridesmaids, it’s hard to not observe the raunchy tone these women have used to start embedding themselves into the mainstream.  It is worth mentioning that this film was written by men while Bridesmaids was written by women, and it doesn’t really delve into the pathos of any of the women.

The issue of gender is not brought up in either film, which is why it makes them relevant.  Bad Teacher is fairly weak, though; typical hallow summer fare chock-full of some great gags and biting one-liners.  As part of a larger case study, though, it merits mention.

In this movie, Cameron Diaz establishes herself as the comedy equivalent of Angelina Jolie.  That is, she has become famous enough to be the selling point of a film.  This is her Salt.  As a bitter, gold-digging teacher, she struts through a middle school in ridiculously over-the-top high heels and form-fitting attire.  If you had a teacher who dressed like this, more power to you. Diaz’s performance as Elizabeth Halsey is fairly uneven, mostly because the writers can’t decide if they want to be on her side or let her rip everyone apart.

The undeniable highlight of this movie comes in the form of little-known comedic actress Lucy Punch.  As Halsey’s educator rival Ms. Squirrel, she nails every comic nuance.  Watch her in the close-ups, as her face twitches and she lets us start to see the madness boiling beneath the surface of her manipulative niceness.  It’s a fully realized comic performance, and it’s worth seeing the movie just to see it.

Jason Segel and Justin Timberlake are the respective love interests of Halsey when she isn’t berating students or smoking pot in the parking lot.  Timberlake plays the unattainable, Segel the too-easily attainable.  Like Bridesmaids, the love relationships are an affront to the comedy, although here it becomes the partial basis of a stand-off between Halsey and Squirrel.

A.O. Scott put Bridesmaids through the Bechdel Movie Test in a recent article in The New York Times and found that while it was still admirable, it was not as feminist as most were hailing it.  The test basically shows whether a film with two female characters talk about anything other than men.  I bet Bad Teacher would do worse, which it does in almost all departments as well.

As Ms. Halsey goes through the necessary character changes to make her three dimensional, the movie thankfully doesn’t overstay its welcome.  At 92 minutes, director Jake Kasden keeps the bare-bones plot moving and lets the jokes fly.  Letting Punch, Segel and The Office’s Phyllis Smith dig into the bulk of the gags along with Diaz gives the movie an undeniable momentum even though it’s hurtling toward the same conclusions.

Grade: C

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