With Cameron Diaz, Justin Timberlake, Jason Segel, Lucy Punch and John Michael Higgins; Running Time: 89 minutes; Rated R for sexual content, nudity, language and some drug use; Written by Gene Stupnitsky & Lee Eisenberg; Directed by Jake Kasdan.
After seeing what’s passing for raunchy comedy this season, it’s a pleasure to come across one that gets it right. BAD TEACHER is hilariously tasteless, featuring a shallow, self-absorbed heroine who does little to try to win us over. There are no “tug-at-the-heartstrings” moments here. There is a happy ending, of sorts, but this is a movie that lets audiences indulge their ids.
Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) is a nightmare of a teacher. She does the absolute minimum, couldn’t care less about her kids, and at the start of the film is planning on ditching it all to marry her wealthy boyfriend. Fate has other ideas, however, and she finds herself back for another term motivated by a new goal: to raise the money she’ll need to get breast implants. She will let nothing stand in her way.
Diaz is absolutely fearless in portraying a character with almost no redeeming features. She lies, she cheats, and will do almost anything to get what she wants. Another teacher, the perky and aptly-named Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch), tries to befriend Elizabeth, but soon sets her sights on exposing her as a fraud. However, this bad teacher is expert at exploiting the weaknesses of others, which is why the new substitute teacher (Justin Timberlake) falls into her trap while the gym teacher (Jason Segel), who isn’t trying to use anyone else, is able to deal with her on his own terms.
This is not one of those movies about how one educator can make a difference. We’ve seen that in movies like “Stand And Deliver” and “Lean On Me” – movies she plays in class rather than teaching – and “Bad Teacher” is here to puncture those clichés. In fact, it would be a mistake to see this movie as a statement about our schools. Instead, it’s about a certain type of person who exists in all walks of life.
There are times some may feel the joke goes too far. However, director Jake Kasdan (“Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”) keeps things moving at a steady clip instead of letting scenes drag on and on. If a gag offends, there won’t be more than a minute or two before the distraction of the next set-up. While there are the inevitable bodily function jokes – including a fully-clothed sex scene between Diaz and Timberlake – there’s a good deal of wit as well. This may be low comedy, but it’s not a stupid film by any means.
Diaz is just wonderful, giving her all to the role, while Punch (“Dinner For Schmucks”) comes into her own as the increasingly unstable Squirrel. Christopher Guest staple John Michael Higgins, as the dolphin-loving principal of the school, gets his moments as well, and fans of “Reno 911” will be happy to see group founder Thomas Lennon cutting up here, too.
“Bad Teacher” doesn’t take the easy way out by playing into a big moment of redemption. There are hints that that might be possible, as when Elizabeth helps a boy who has been picked on, but does it in her own inimitable way. This is an uncompromising comedy about a character who lives as she likes, and doesn’t care what you think. The result is a laugh-out-loud comedy about middle school to which parents should definitely not bring the kids.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.