'Bad Teacher,' Good Comedy
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
A refreshingly raucous comedy that comes surprisingly close to completely living up to its lack of conviction, "Bad Teacher" does more than merely excel in the rude and crude departments. Its depiction of a variety of vicious fish trying to crowd one another out of a small pond is sharp enough to elevate it a bit from your average cavalcade of comic raunchfests spewing envelope-pushing jokes concerning sex organs and bodily functions. A bit, but not too much. Which is really fine, as it turns out.
Cameron Diaz, not afraid of looking a certain age (in part because, let's face it, she makes a certain age look pretty damn good) and more than a little wasted (the phrase some prefer is "rode hard and put up wet"), wastes no time in establishing her lead character, Elizabeth Halsey, as a shallow, snippy, appearance-obsessed little gold-digger who's quite pleased to be about to spring what she believes to be the perfect mantrap. The opening of the film sees her leaving the middle school teaching job she's had for one mere year. How and why she got said job isn't explained and doesn't matter, since it's clear she was just marking time with it until she could marry a rich schmuck. Except she's summarily dumped by the rich schmuck, or more specifically by what would have been her future mother-in-law, and so is compelled to return to her position -- teaching position, that is -- the next semester. And so she does, with an even worse attitude concerning the gig than she had to begin with.
Staggering into the classroom nursing hangover after hangover, "educating" her students with an array of school-themed movies on DVD that begin with "Stand and Deliver" and devolve to "Scream," she's a classroom disaster, and her colleagues make a very complementary array of foils. There's kind, dumpy, ingenuous instructor Lynn (Phyllis Smith of "The Office"), goofy, dolphin-obsessed Principal Snur (the ever-perky John Michael Higgins), amiable slacker phys ed teacher Russell, who's not quite as not-with-it as he seems (Jason Segel), and, most crucially, the very energetic and conscientious-to-a-fault hall neighbor Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch).
When the cute and, it seems, well-off substitute teacher Scott (Justin Timberlake) arrives on the scene, Elizabeth sees a potential ticket out of the job, and starts really focusing on raising the money for breast enhancement surgery, the new boobs apparently the better to snare Scott with. This motivation brings out what you might call the best-worst in our heroine: Her methods are low-down, despicable, and often meretricious, to say the least (she shanghais the school's ostensible charity car wash event and turns it into a kind of wet T-shirt show, so as to bring in more dollars to embezzle), but they do get results. And when she discovers that the teacher who can guide his or her class to high state test scores is rewarded with a juicy bonus, she sets her sights to making a killing by doing good. Inadvertently, of course. But still.
A lot of "howevers" crop up along the way, one of them being that her new dream man turns out to be a total simp. It's of course almost funny by default watching pop stud muffin and real-life Diaz-ex Timberlake going full doofus, but what's really choice is the way the hardly entirely benevolent, supremely passive-aggressive Amy Squirrel swoops down on his character. Punch, a British actress who's appeared in "Hot Fuzz" and Woody Allen's "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," practically walks away with the film as she constructs a comic monument of simpering and frantic dissembling. Her confrontation with Principal Snur in which Snur says to Squirrel, more in abject terror than annoyance, "Do not do that with your mouth," is kind of an instant classic. No mean feat, this, what with sterling contemporary comic talents such as Segel, who delivers great "takes" throughout, and Smith, who does tumbling-forward-confusion as acutely as the great Alvy Moore did on "Green Acres," giving their all to their roles.
Which isn't to say Diaz slacks. When her boozing, dope-smoking, perpetually pissed-off wasteoid character says things like "I'd rather get shot in the face" when offered the option of seeing a show by the school's faculty band, she really sells it. As she does in the sharply written exchanges with her rather befuddled students, e.g., "You're sensitive," "Thank you," "That's NOT a compliment." Good little dialogue jabs like that are common in the script by Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, which is given very brisk direction by Jake Kasdan ("Zero Effect"). They are broken up by near-geysers of bathroom humor, and some may regret that the filmmakers chose to mix things up thusly when it's clear they might have the smarts to have crafted a film in the tradition of the somewhat more profound "Election." But, one or two half-hearted sops to happy endings aside, the film seems actively disinterested in doing much of anything besides living up to its title. Which it absolutely does, in style, and which turns out to be more than enough.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.