Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Jun 25, 2011 6:53 pm 
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JASON SEGEL, CAMERON DIAZ, AND PHYLLIS SMITH IN BAD TEACHER

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Bad Teacher is not a good movie. And Cameron Diaz is not good in the lead. She's doing her slut shtick, but a bad teacher is a bored bureaucrat, not a slut. The characters don't come together here, and the plot is too narrow in its focus on this one-note protagonist. Any school comedy would be better than this, even a bad one. This bad teacher is only working to make money to pay for breast enlargement surgery so she can lure a rich man and quit working. She's not a bad teacher, she's a dumb woman. The same unfunny jokes keep coming up over and over here. This is a comedy for people who think bad taste and vulgarity, given a sufficiently unsuitable setting, will be hilarious.

It's not fair to compare Bad Teacher to Bad Santa. There was some degree of bravery and perceptiveness in Bad Santa, beginning with the dark view of a sacrosanct subject like Christmas. Bad Teacher doesn't take a dark view of anything, other than this one woman. Actually, while Billy Bob Thornton's protagonist in Bad Santa was boldly unappealing as well as unredeemable, Diaz is sexy and sassy, which takes the edge off her character's alleged badness. The movie can't make up its mind about her.

There's nothing particularly well-observed about the American classroom here. The chief rival and enemy of Elizabeth Halsey (Diaz) goes out of her way to engage her students. Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch) is silly, and overly competitive. Are her good intentions meant to be as despicable as Halsey's indifference? Punch, a bright young English actress, has nothing very interesting to do. The new substitute teacher, Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), the heir to a fortune, is silly too and almost childlike. We don't see him teach. The only interest is in observing Timberlake play against character. It's just another shtick. He has a little fun with it, and we have a little fun watching him, particularly when he sings a pathetic love song to his would-be girlfriend, Amy. Timberlake shows selflessness as well as deftness here that will serve him well in future comic roles, but like others in this movie, he is underused.

Several other school characters come off better. Russell Gettis (Jason Segel), the out-of-shape gym teacher, who has the hots for Halsey but wants to see her doing any job other than teaching, tries hard (as Segel usually does) to be ingratiating. The effort is welcome next to Halsey's caring about nothing. (Segel's typecasting as the hopeless suitor goes back to "Freaks and Geeks" days). Lynn Davies (Phyllis Smith), Halsey's matronly, schoolmarmish occasional sidekick, is a good sport. As Principal Wally Snur, John Michael Higgins is purely generic, but that could work if this movie were well written. Somehow the cast members don't seem to fit together. It's hard to believe the fresh-faced young Timberlake would be attracted to this blowzy woman, with her lipstick-smeared lips and stoned eyes. And the more appealing characters seem to come from a different kind of comedy.

There is not enough individuality here. One remembers the hilarious school principal played by Joan Cusack as a foil for Jack Black in School of Rock. But that was a movie written by Mike White and directed by Richard Linklater -- a school comedy on a whole other level. Jack Black was a "bad teacher" you could really care about, and the movie had a strong momentum, with traditional, but fun payoff: the school event that's a big success. One trouble with Bad Teacher is that the students don't seem to figure much here. Diaz's character is too narcissistic for anybody else to matter much.

Who wrote this stuff? Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, whose previous credits are for some of the American "The Office" and Year One, another crude, simplistic comedy -- though at least one that, since it concerned cave men, had an excuse for being crude and simplistic. In Bad Teacher, Halsey is despicable, but not very believable. Why is it that I don't warm to a teacher who does nothing but get stoned and drunk and fills up class time by showing movies? Because she does not teach. Of course she will be redeemed, after a fashion, though in the end she just goes off into the sunset. Will she be back, to ruin another semester and get together with Gettis? In today's Hollywood the worse a movie is, the more likely it is to have a sequel.

Halsey's efforts are all designed to make money, mostly piddling amounts. She finds out she can win something around $5,000 if her class gets the best grades on a test, so she uses a disguise to get the answers. This foray, and a farcically un-raunchy dry-humping episode with Scott Delacorte (who's inexplicably pulled between her and Amy), and a faculty band performance are rare occasions when we see the bad teacher outside of school. And yet the school barely seems like a school. Halsey also is briefly invited to a family Christmas dinner. And she makes plenty of money at a school car wash by posing provocatively on the cars. Very funny, or at least outrageously raunchy (the movie confuses the two) -- but purely visual. This is a lazy movie. It feels thrown together -- which would be fine if it was Monty Python. But these filmmakers don't bring out any improvisatory skill in their cast.

Halsey's plan to win the class prize leads her to do some actual teaching. She drills her class on To Kill a Mockingbird. The movie misses the chance to link this teacher's venial goals with the narcissism of American teenagers. Elizabeth Halsey is only redeemed when she downscales her goals from the airheaded young heir to the going-to-seed gym teacher, and from breast enlargement to going with what she has. At least Cameron Diaz has done well as a comic actress with her own crude but sassy skill set. May she get better material next time.

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