On paper, Bad Teacher must have sounded like a promising idea for a gleeful black comedy, as it was designed in the mould of 2003’s Bad Santa and it concerns the behind-the-scenes behaviour of school teachers. The title’s similarity to Bad Santa is surely not a coincidence – Bad Teacher is very reminiscent of the earlier picture in spirit, and the protagonist of both movies is a cruel, mean-spirited, foul-mouthed alcoholic. (One can almost imagine a ragtag franchise of Bad movies being spearheaded…) However, in its finished form, 2011’s Bad Teacher is a complete misfire. The film was written by the duo responsible for 2009’s abominable Year One, which perhaps makes the material’s awfulness less surprising. Heck, just by mentioning the screenwriters’ prior works, this review could be concluded right here…
Upon completing her first year as a school teacher, slutty gold digger Elizabeth Halsey (Diaz) quits her job, looking to marry her sugar daddy and settle down for life. When her fiancé promptly breaks off the engagement, though, Elizabeth begrudgingly returns to teaching where she keeps her students busy with movies while spending school hours hungover, asleep or high. A rival soon emerges for Elizabeth in form of chirpy, academic overachiever Amy Squirrel (Punch), who resents Elizabeth’s behaviour. Hoping to get breast implants to help her land a rich hubbie, Elizabeth begins scheming to scrape together thousands of dollars through embezzling and even rigging an exam. Catching onto Elizabeth’s plan, Amy begins working to expose her co-worker’s misdeeds. Meanwhile, earnest gym teacher Russell (Segel) watches from the sidelines and makes continual passes at Elizabeth, but she’s far more interested in wealthy substitute teacher Scott (Timberlake) who’s heir to a lucrative watch-making dynasty.
Chief among Bad Teacher‘s biggest faults is that Elizabeth makes little sense as a person. For instance, she often shows up to work hungover but we do not see her actually drinking or partying. In fact her outside life is barely glimpsed save for a couple of ineffective scenes in her apartment, where she’s just slouching on her living room lounge. And when Elizabeth begins to actually teach her students, the habitual slacker seems to be extremely knowledgeable about books like Animal Farm and To Kill a Mockingbird. Since when is she so intelligent? Rather than a fully-rounded individual like Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa, Elizabeth remains a thinly-sketched caricature who mysteriously changes at the script’s convenience. Worse, the ending hints that Elizabeth has turned a new leaf and changed her ways, but the transformation is too sudden to feel like a cohesive, logical arc. The narrative is too shambolic, jumping from set-piece to set-piece without providing necessary bridge scenes or adequate material to give weight to Elizabeth’s character. The filmmakers clearly imagined we’d overlook these lapses in logic in order to have a few laughs and enjoy the ride. Unfortunately, while the film is well-paced, there are too few laughs to be had – you may laugh four or five times, but the next day you’ll be hard-pressed to remember what you found so amusing.
Ultimately, screenwriters Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky were unable to conceive of enough comedy that’s worth a damn. Instead, they chose to dish up lazy, half-hearted, unfunny humour akin to their dismal Year One. Compounding the awfulness is the lethargic delivery of the jokes, giving the impression that director Jake Kasdan (Walk Hard) was fast asleep at the helm. The notion of Bad Teacher being the work of a truly invested, passionate filmmaker is ridiculous. And despite its R rating, Bad Teacher is simultaneously neither soft nor dark enough. If the language was tweaked and a few raunchy scenes were removed, this could’ve been rated PG-13. An R-rated picture was definitely preferable and it’s good that the filmmakers stuck to their guns, but the jokes are too sophomoric and the plot is so uncreative and drab that mature-aged audience members won’t find much of interest here. Perhaps the studio forbade Kasdan from going as far as he wanted in terms of bad taste. Again, give me Bad Santa any day.
If nothing else, Cameron Diaz’s performance as Elizabeth is somewhat amusing, and it looks as if she had a ball playing the role. To the actress’ credit, she managed to maintain a bit of amiability despite her character’s reprehensible nature. Then there’s Lucy Punch (Hot Fuzz), who went as over-the-top as possible playing Amy Squirrel. She gets a few laughs, but her performance is more awkwardly overzealous than flat-out amusing. Justin Timberlake (The Social Network) is the cast’s weakest link as Scott – he did well enough with the material he was given, but he failed to own the role and he’s ultimately interchangeable. Meanwhile, Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) is genial and sweet, as he always is.
The occasional laugh aside, there’s not much to recommend about the generic, trite Bad Teacher. Of course, humour is subjective and some may find the film to be a total laugh riot, but for this reviewer’s taste the film is just flat-out not funny enough. It’s a great idea that’s been committed to film, and that’s about all there is to Bad Teacher. Perhaps the production started life as something greater than the subpar finished movie.