Monday, June 27, 2011



- It's been an interesting Summer for big-screen comedies, with a spate of high-profile, R-rated films hitting the box office - many of them shaking up the usual formula a bit. Bad Teacher follows the lead of Bridesmaides, in that it recasts roles typically given to male comic actors with female leads. Whereas Bridesmaids took a typical, Judd Apatow-style sweet-meets-salty premise and turned it on its ear, with Kristin Wiig filling in for a Seth Rogen or Steve Carell, Bad Teacher takes an idea explored in movies like Bad Santa and School of Rock, but brings in Cameron Diaz to play the part of the proverbial bad role model. It's interesting, because it's a role that set off a great debate about post-feminism in comedy and about whether a movie like Bad Teacher is a step forward or step back for women-in-film. Personally, I like the premise at the core of the movie. Recent articles and editorials have talked at length about how both girls and guys - according to conventional wisdom - are put off by watching women acting rude, crude, awkwardly, and/or behaving badly in general. To me, that's rubbish. If the part is written well, then I'm as happy to see women be dorky, vulgar, or whatever as I am men. That said, Bad Teacher definitely has a self-awareness that its premise is not something we see a lot of. The movie gets a lot of laughs from its shock-value alone. I guess that's why my biggest complaint is that it doesn't go far enough.

Bad Teacher casts Diaz as a woman who's fairly unashamed of her worst qualities. She's lazy and half-assed when it comes to teaching, but aggressive and take-no-prisoners when it comes to using her sexuality to get what she wants. In this case, what she wants to do some gold-digging. After being dumped by her wealthy, sad-sack husband, Diaz has a new pursuit - a dorky-but-loaded trustfunder played by everyone's favorite pop-star-turned-movie-star, Justin Timberlake. In an odd twist of events, Diaz thinks that she can only win Timberlake's affections if she shells out the dough to make herself more, well, well-endowed. And so, Diaz uses every dirty trick in the book to raise the money for a boob job. All the while, she's trying to stave off her uppity rival - a prissy teacher played by Lucy Punch.

Diaz is great in this role - in fact, I think this is the kind of role that she was born to play, but doesn't often get to. Why? Who knows - maybe an actress of Diaz's star power isn't "supposed" to be playing an over-the-top comedy character like she does here? But Diaz has always seemed goofier and crazier than a lot of her peers, and this is a role that takes full advantage of that. It makes you wonder why someone like her is so often stuck playing the personality-less girlfriend or wife role. Lucy Punch is also a great comic foil to Diaz - she walks the line between love-to-hate and, occasionally, flat-out annoying. But, this is definitely a stand-up-and-take-notice sort of performance from Punch. Phyllis Smith from The Office also shows that she has great comic timing and delivery, even when removed from the confines of Dunder-Mifflin. As Diaz's repressed sidekick, she's hilarious.

Unfortunately, the movie's main male characters are a lot less well-drawn than their female counterparts (rare, I know). Justin Timberlake's character has some funny moments, but he's also sort of a mess. You never quite get who this character is supposed to be, or why Diaz is so fixated on him at the exclusion of all other potential suitors. Meanwhile, Timberlake playing an eccentric, goofy dork is a bit much - his performance feels too much like him playing dress-up for an SNL sketch, and not enough like a fully-realized character. At the same time, Jason Segel feels a bit wasted in the movie. As always, he plays a likable schlub - but he gets little screentime and almost no believable opportunities to show chemistry with Diaz. Why do their characters fall for each other? Who knows.

And that brings me to my chief critique of the movie. It's a little bit dark, a little bit twisted. But ... it doesn't go nearly far enough. The movie is at its best when it's being totally subversive (I cracked up, for example, when Diaz grades her students' crappy papers with - instead of letter grades - marks of "Are you %$&#'ing kidding me?", etc.). But somehow, the characters keep getting pulled out of the darker, more memorable movie that moments like this represent, and into a much more standard, paint-by-numbers comedy that (not-really-a-SPOILER) has Diaz and Segel getting together, well, just because that's what happens in movies.

I would have liked to have seen Bad Teacher go to as dark a place as, say, Bad Santa, but it only flirts with that level of depth. That said, there are a number of moments - as mentioned, particularly those with Diaz in the classroom, in full "bad teacher" mode - that are genuinely inspired and darkly hilarious. As is, Bad Teacher could have been something really great. I mean, the premise alone is so simple-yet-novel that you can't help but like it. But the movie's potential is kept in check by some script and casting issues that hold it back from being as good as it could be. Still, this one is worth checking out - it has enough laughs that it should send you home happy. And as far as the potential it opens up for more comedies with female leads every bit as crazy, smart-assed, or vulgar as their male counterparts? I say bring 'em on.

My Grade: B

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