Thursday, September 22, 2011

Bad Teacher - 2011

"Bad Teacher" - 2011
Dir. by Jake Kasdan - 1 hr. 32 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

There's a fundamental problem with a comedy when all of the funniest scenes don't have the star in them.  That's not to say that Cameron Diaz doesn't have some funny scenes, but she kind of gets lapped by her co-stars here.  The timing for "Bad Teacher" could hardly be better, following hot on the success of the female-led, raunchy "Bridesmaids."  But this movie just isn't in the same ballpark.

The plot is straightforward.  A gold-digging ho (Diaz, playing Elizabeth Halsey) has her dream marriage fall apart (meaning one that is primarily for money), along with her dreams of leaving the teaching profession behind.  She begrudgingly returns to teaching, hoping to land another golden calf.  Fortunately, Scott Delacourte (Justin Timberlake) shows up as a substitute teacher; he's from a family that makes luxury watches.  Elizabeth gets it into her head that in order to land Scott, she's going to need some anatomical enhancements, but on a teacher's salary they're hard to come by.  And while she's got her eyes on Scott, the gym teacher (Jason Segel) is making a play for her.  And all along the way, she's completely indifferent to her students - doing nothing but showing movies for weeks on end, instead preferring to engage in a game of one-upsmanship for the affections of Scott with another teacher, Amy Squirrel (played with a unhinged candy-coated nastiness by Lucy Punch).  And she smokes a lot of pot and drinks a ton, too.

I don't know whether to lay the blame for general unfunniness at the feet of Cameron Diaz, or at the writers'.  There's certainly an issue with Diaz' performance; while the character's behavior is unquestionably bad, there's a sort of awareness lurking that makes it feel more calculated than natural.  That's a problem, it's one thing to enjoy this sort of thing when the character makes the choices she does out of a compulsion or because she just doesn't know better.  Instead, it feels like she's aware of what the right choice is, and chooses over and over again to be nasty or selfish.  An easy comparison movie is "Bad Santa," where Billy Bob Thornton really inhabits his character as a nasty piece of business, but it feels like a person behaving naturally (if comedically and poorly).  Here, it's like a singer not quite hitting the note.  Cameron, you're a little pitchy, dawg!

At the same time, the character as it's written is flawed, too.  While Diaz is beautiful, she's nearly forty years old, playing a character that's written as a first year teacher.  Much like Will Ferrell needing to stop playing athletes due to diminishing believability, Diaz is at least a decade too old to play this role using youthful naivety as the excuse for her behavior.  The writing never gives any explanation as to how the character came to be the person she is, which is fine when the character is supposed to be an early twenty-something.  But, if you're going to cast a star who doesn't fit into that slot, you need to adapt the story a bit.  Forty year-olds don't exist without some sense of history, they don't pop out of nowhere.  Even in a raunchy, check your brains at the door comedy, it's a failure at some stage (whether it be writing or editing such explanations out).  So, while Diaz's performance was a little tone deaf, the writing didn't give her what she needed to make the character work.

What does work here?  Justin Timberlake is pretty funny with his ridiculous earnestness, and Jason Segel's gym teacher is really good, especially when goading Timberlake's character.  Lucy Punch is really great - her manic, super-"nice" character works really well as a foil to Cameron Diaz's cynical character.  Pretty much all of the smaller roles are knocked out of the park.  But when you can't find a way to root for the main character (because it just doesn't quite click, due to the aforementioned issues), it's a nice side dish in an otherwise terrible meal.

Man, I wanted this to be a funny movie, but it wasn't even close.  At least Diaz looked really good in the car wash scene...

1.5 / 5 - Theatre

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