Too Cruel for School

The aptly named Bad Teacher doesn’t make the grade

When I told my husband that I was going to see Bad Teacher, he paused for a moment and then said, knowing my love of wordplay, “The title of your take-down will write itself!” And while it is true that I love it when movies unwittingly review themselves, the presence of the word “bad” in the title isn’t always a giveaway. Breaking Bad, for instance, is a really good show. The Bad Seed is a classic. Even Bad Boys, the 1995 Will Smith-Martin Lawrence cop caper, has its charms. That said, Bad Teacher is pretty bad. It’s a comedy as black as a chalkboard but ultimately just as blank.

Cameron Diaz stars as Elizabeth Halsey, a negligent seventh grade teacher at John Adams Middle School and all-around terrible human being. Elizabeth plans to leave her job to get married, but her rich fiance calls off the wedding after discovering she’s been spending all of his money. Forced to move in with a tattooed biker roommate she found on Craigslist (Modern Family’s Eric Stonestreet) and downgrade to a used car, Elizabeth returns to work in the fall more dejected than ever. She drinks, smokes marijuana and sleeps at her desk while the kids watch “educational” movies such as Stand and Deliver and Dangerous Minds. She openly mocks the students and rolls her eyes at her colleagues—most notably Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch), an obnoxious goody two-shoes, and Russell Gettis (Jason Segel), the gym teacher who’s inexplicably besotted with her. The only people Elizabeth will deign to speak to are Lynn Davies (The Office’s Phyllis Smith), an awkward, matronly loner, and Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), a new substitute teacher who comes from family money.

When she’s not plotting to seduce Scott in order to ensure a life of luxury, Elizabeth focuses her efforts on saving money for a set of fake breasts, pocketing the profits from a school-sponsored car wash and accepting bribes from parents without flinching. And after she learns that the teacher whose students score highest a statewide standardized test wins a bonus of $5,700, she wastes no time in tracking down a test official, drugging him and stealing the answer key. There is not a scene in which Diaz is not making a face like she’s sucking on a lemon, bored out of her mind. It gets old, fast.

And that’s the problem with Bad Teacher: Its central joke—She’s a horrible teacher! And person! And she just keeps on being an asshole!—is all it’s got. If you don’t find it hilarious for a woman to be constantly crass and bitchy, you’re out of luck—that is, unless you like audible defecation, prolonged dry-humping or gratuitous expletives (“Get hard, because I’m about to suck your dick like I’m mad at it,” Elizabeth trills in the film’s opening moments). When in doubt, Bad Teacher falls back on the types of amateur gross-out tropes made famous by parodies such as Scary Movie. Cameron Diaz was more dignified rubbing semen into her hair in There’s Something About Mary, or singing about penises in The Sweetest Thing. It’s not that she’s bad, exactly … it’s just that she’s given only one note to play, and she bangs it out again and again with all the subtlety of a trash compactor.

The supporting cast is more interesting (and, it must be said, more funny—especially Punch, who goes fabulously over-the-top with her Tracy Flick shtick), yet the camera remains glued to Diaz’s sullen mug. What director Jake Kasdan and writers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg don’t seem to have considered is that even dark comedies need a heart (Segel’s love-struck gym teacher comes closest, but still, the most romantic sentence he utters is “Hold my ball sack.”)

It’s unfortunate. Bad Teacher could have been smart and sinister, a Heathers told from the perspective of the faculty. Instead, it’s more like a reverse, perverse Billy Madison. I give it a C-minus. And only because Punch, Smith and Segel earned extra credit.

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