Bad Teacher wasn’t so bad

Bad Teacher was exactly what I thought it would be. Filthy and funny and not too good. My review got cut weirdly, so here’s the uncut version. (The LGBT Weekly version is here.)

Bad Teacher
Directed by Jake Kasdan
Written by Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg
Starring Cameron Diaz, Lucy Punch, Justin Timberlake, and Jason Segal
Very Rated R
At your local multiplex

I had one wildly incompetent social studies teacher, a woman who didn’t feel the need to put any effort into her work beyond what was necessary not to get fired. I had a math teacher who got high at lunch every day and then sprayed her room with strawberry air freshener to mask the smell. And I had a professor whose excuses for not returning papers became more preposterous as the papers got later and later. But Elizabeth Halsey, who Cameron Diaz plays in Bad Teacher, is not just lazy, dishonest, and prone to being inebriated at work. She’s also a thief, a tease, and a bully, and she has the mouth of a particularly dirty sailor. She’s also stop-dead-in-your-tracks-to-look hot.

Diaz is stunning, as beautiful and sexy as she is aware of how to use her looks. One of the reasons that is Diaz is inarguably one of the great comedic actresses of her generation is that she uses her beauty, and her body, as either a distraction, a prop, or a foil. When Elizabeth walks down the hallway of John Adams Middle School in heels and a mini skirt, she’s tartly elegant, just exaggerated and inappropriate to get a few giggles. But when she puts on a movie for her students, and then wraps herself in her coat and curls into an awkward, misshapen ball on her chair, her willingness to look ridiculous, even ugly, pulls out the audience’s laughter.

Unfortunately, Diaz’s almost effortless comic skill is not matched by the film surrounding it. Elizabeth is only teaching, or “teaching,” as way to pay the bills while she tries to score a rich husband. She thinks that she needs a breast enlargement to do this, and to raise the $10,000 she needs, she does increasingly bad things. One potential husband is a new substitute, Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), who is also pursued by Elizabeth’s absurdly perky nemesis Amy Squirrel (the hilarious, slightly insane Lucy Punch). Meanwhile, the gym teacher Russell Gattis (Jason Segal), is pursuing Elizabeth, who responds to his invitation to a date with, “Are you still a gym teacher? Then no.”

While the screenplay, by Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, crackles with pointed, often filthy one-liners and tart, loony exchanges (particularly between Lucy and Elizabeth), director Jake Kasdan doesn’t seem to have much control of the actors’ timing. So, too often the scenes fall flat, especially when the actors aren’t as experienced or instinctual as Diaz or Segal. As adorable as Justin Timberlake is, and as lucky as he was to have been in last year’s best film, The Social Network, he’s not much of an actor, and in his scenes with his ex Cameron Diaz, he was out-classed and out-acted. A few times, he was used as a sight-gag; when he dances badly and sings badly, the audience’s laughs are based on its previous knowledge of his better work, not about the character he’s supposed to be playing.

That said, I laughed out loud several times while watching Bad Teacher, even during some of Timberlake’s scenes. The younger men in the audience when I saw the movie were particularly enamored with the movie, especially when the issue of breasts was first and foremost. While Bad Teacher is a female-driven comedy, unlike Bridesmaids, it is not a depiction of a remotely realistic female; Elizabeth is a male fantasy, a hot and dirty, bawdy and easy cartoon. She’s a like a Will Farrell character in the body of Victoria’s Secret model. Which is a pretty funny thing.