Friday, July 01, 2011

679 - Bad Teacher review

“Bad Teacher” will likely be known largely as an unofficial companion piece to 2003’s “Bad Santa.” It could have been taken as a nasty swipe at the public education system, and at times it sort of is, though it’s too farcical and lacking the satirical arc needed to make a serious statement.

But anyone who has attended high school in the past couple decades should recognize a thing or two. On the first day of the semester, Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz), the titular educator, pops in “Stand and Deliver,” that nice little 1988 film about a wonderful teacher in an impoverished part of Los Angeles. During high school, I was screened “Stand and Deliver” no less than four times. “I use all sorts of multimedia in my education process,” Elizabeth says, as if films about teachers inherently taught the students something, but when ones about benevolent instructors run out, she switches to movies like “Scream.”

This, in addition to evoking a bit of reality, is pretty funny. To my surprise, “Bad Teacher,” which was largely savaged by critics, is actually pretty funny throughout, though one would be hard-pressed to flatter it as a cohesive story. Diaz proves to have apt comedic timing, and, she really wants you to know this, a nice figure. Her Elizabeth is a whiskey-swilling, dope-smoking, gold-digging tramp, a woman nakedly devoted to ensnaring the wealthiest man she can find. Rarely does a major release feature a protagonist so deliberately unlikeable. The main character of “Bad Santa” often did worse, but he was more pathetic than anything, a desperate wretch of a man. Elizabeth’s just plain mean, and Diaz manages the high-wire act of making her cruelty towards children and well-intentioned adults laugh-worthy.

Elizabeth finds herself teaching to pay the bills after being kicked loose by her fiancé. Public school probably doesn’t provide the best dating scene for women looking to marry rich, but as luck has it, the dim-witted new substitute (Justin Timberlake) comes from major money. He, along with every other faculty member save one, exudes good cheer and enthusiasm for teaching (good luck finding a teacher as bad as Elizabeth or as upbeat as the rest), meaning that most of the humor derives from the interaction of a shamelessly awful human being with those who occupy worlds filled with sunshine.

Where “Bad Teacher” falters is at the direction and editing level. The humorous scenes play more as vignettes than any part of a cohesive story; time jumps forward wildly and characters act without apparent motivation, giving the distinct impression of a film that saw aggressive cuts in the editing room. This consistently distracts, as it’s not until towards the end that we even discover what subject Elizabeth teaches, and gives the whole picture a distinctly disjointed feel. Notably absent is the serious development of any of the students, with only a couple token scenes thrown in revolving around a hapless social outcast.

Consider Elizabeth’s likeability. Contrary to popular belief, a protagonist does not have to be likeable, just involving. Elizabeth qualifies, though in the final ten minutes, her attitude takes a 180 degree turn to the sympathetic, without warning or development. I suspect that editing room contains some scenes that would clear this up, but what’s left is a weak, unearned grasp for audience approval.

Yet, with reservations, I’m able to endorse this, mostly by merit of its performances, with excellent supporting work by Lucy Punch and Jason Segel, among others. Here’s hoping that its apparent box office success results in a video version that supplies us with a story worth following and payoffs worth caring about.

3 out of 5


Anonymous said...

As a teacher, I found the movie hilarious. Lots of things she does that as a teacher you think about doing all the time, but obviously can't. Example being the comments she writes on the papers shes grading. That part was hilarious to me.

There are a few "out there" parts that aren't even close to realistic. They don't really take away from the movie, but they were just kind of funny to me.

-First: The teachers and administrators all drinking at the school at their end of the year party. That would never happen, no school in the country would allow any alcohol.

-Second: When she decides to become a guidance counselor. I was thinking "Oh, so she earned a 2 year Masters Degree over the course of one summer?" You can't just decide to become a guidance counselor, need a masters in that field first. And if she already had a Masters, I'm sure she would have taken that job originally since she was so concerned with money. Guidance Counselors make a LOT more than teachers in most circumstances.

Overall, I agree with the 3 star rating. Hilarious movie overall.

James said...

Hello Anonymous,

I didn't get into this in the review, but even my brief experience as a substitute likely served to make this funnier. I didn't see any teachers as awful as Diaz or as sunny as the rest, but the pic captured how gloomy and downbeat the working side of public education can be.

I thought something similar about the ending. A lot of silly comedies to this, where the film's final shot is a revelation that the protagonist has switched careers, started a new business, whatever.

Also, do public school teachers face periodic drug tests?