Review: 'Bad Teacher' Scathes, But It's True to Its Unflinching Self
by Jeremy Kirk
June 24, 2011
Elizabeth Halsey is a bad teacher. She despises her students. Puts out a TV and shows films about teachers instead of cracking open their books. She even smokes pot in the school parking lot. So why is Ms. Halsey, played in the new movie Bad Teacher by Cameron Diaz, so damn funny? Hence the question facing Bad Teacher, a movie that despite having low output in regards to likable characters still causes you to double over in laughter with each passing frame. It's not your typical comedy. It aims for discomfort and edge, rather than safe and plastic Hollywood. For that, we have to thank the people behind Bad Teacher. Comedy is subjective, probably the most subjective genre out there, and balancing how much a comedy makes you laugh with how well it is executed becomes the task you have to grasp when dissecting them.
But director Jake Kasdan and screenwriters Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky realize this. They know the movie they're making isn't going to be for everyone, and they don't care. They make their lead character of Bad Teacher, the protagonist for all intents and purposes, the one who is moralistically in the wrong. More than a bad teacher, Elizabeth Halsey is a bad person. She dreams more than anything to marry a rich man, and she hopes a breast operation will be the key to finding that man of her financial dreams.
But every protagonist, whether morally wholesome or something much more indecent, has to have an antagonist, the Yin and Yang of cinematic character relationships. In Bad Teacher, that Yang to Halsey's scowling Yin is Ms. Squirrel, played with riotous exuberance by Lucy Punch. Ms. Squirrel sees herself as the moral fiber of their middle school. When she notices Elizabeth taking shortcuts every chance she gets, the more ethical of the two sets out to bring the bad teacher down. It doesn't help that a rich substitute, played by Justin Timberlake, falls in between the two.
Eisenberg and Stupnitsky hit the ground running with a barrage of jokes. From the beginning of Bad Teacher, you realize the dynamic at play. You see how Elizabeth acts around the other teachers at the school, how her more sharpened outlook on the world bounces off the bubbly nature the others project. And like a pin to a balloon, she has the capability of popping them. She just doesn't care whether or not she actually does it.
And that is where Bad Teacher's true hidden meaning lies. It's about the fakeness of the world and the people in that world that do exactly as they please no matter the cost. It's hardly ever a Hollywood ending where the wholesome characters win out and the evil-doers are punished. Quite the contrary. And not only do Kasdan and the screenwriters understand this, they don't even allow their film to fall into the Hollywood tropes you might expect even from an R-rated comedy. You keep expecting Elizabeth to become moved by her students. You expect some kind of cliché to slap the film onto the smooth rails of Hollywood archetypes. But that, like many of the characters in Bad Teacher, would come off as false, and no one involved in making this film is interested in coming off as false.
That combined with the great jokes and an absolutely stellar cast are what really drive Bad Teacher into being a success. Diaz is hilarious, her ability to come off fierce but still looking like she's having fun doing it being the main selling point. But it's Punch, Timberlake, and Jason Segel who round out a secondary cast that absolutely wins us over.
Punch is quirky, almost fearless in her portrayal of the buoyant but unstable Ms. Squirrel. Timberlake, playing the one character who comes off more false than any others, is perfect. His goof gauge is in the red, but he, too, seems to be having a blast here. Segel probably comes off as the most middle-of-the-road character in the film. His gym teacher is cynical to the other teachers, understanding to the kids, and infatuated with Elizabeth. He's the kind of character you keep waiting to unveil the answer to all the moralistic questions Bad Teacher has raised up to that point. In a clichéd film, he would have that answer, but, as we've discussed, this movie is anything but clichéd.
And again, that's probably where Bad Teacher's biggest success comes from. No, the comedy isn't going to be for everyone. The people who find the jokes funny will be laughing uproariously, but there will be a much larger group who turned off altogether. There's nothing wrong with that, but what cannot be questioned here is what Kasdan, Eisenberg, and Stupnitsky were aiming for. They aimed to craft a comedy about an unscrupulous character in a world of plastic but wholesome trees and have you side with the much darker side. They aimed for the ugly truth rather than a safe and pleasant falsity. Bad Teacher is a comedy that scathes. For many, it'll also make you laugh uncontrollably, and that little bit of enjoyment is probably the best way to take the unpleasant honesty.
Jeremy's Rating: 7.5 out of 10