Bad Teacher

August 16, 2011
Cameron Diaz, Bad Teacher
Cameron Diaz, Bad Teacher

When Cameron Diaz is not acting, like, she talks just like a typical teenage girl, like. Amazing! Considering she’s like almost 40 and a multi-million dollar earner on the Hollywood circuit. Awesome, dude!

I’ve always wondered whether Sofia Coppola’s notorious parody of Diaz as a blonde, airheaded actrine in Lost in Translation, was an unfair caricature, but there is nothing in this latest movie to suggest any hidden depths.

Bad Teacher is proof that adolescence is not so much a time of life but a state of mind that may be sustained almost indefinitely. Not a single character in this defiantly low-brow comedy commands our sympathy, with the possible exception of Jason Segal’s gym teacher, Russell Gettis, who is the only regular guy in a staff room that is a freak show. Russell’s chief recommendation is a complete lack of ambition, aside from the ambition to get laid. While all of his peers approach their job as if it were an audition for American Idol, Segal is unfit, overweight, and only animated by the thought of getting into Diaz’s panties – although she claims she doesn’t wear any.

The one inflexible rule with Bad Teacher is that the more high-minded their intentions, the more grotesque the character. This is the world turned upside down in a rather mechanical way: at John Adams High School, (“Jams” for short), good is bad, and bad is good.

Diaz’s Elizabeth Halsey is a partial exception, in that she is bad in a way that never quite makes it to good. The film begins with her breaking up with her wealthy boyfriend, who has an hysterical outburst because she doesn’t share his love of opera. The only thing that Elizabeth loves is his cash, which she has translated into designer labels and a fast car. With the romance over, she reluctantly returns for another year at Jams.

She has decided that her path to happiness lies with bigger breasts, and is saving up for a boob job. In the meantime, she gets her class to watch movies while she swigs scotch, smokes dope, and acts like a complete bitch with everyone. She spies one new avenue of escape in the person of nerdy new teacher, Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), who wears an expensive watch and is obviously loaded. It is an in-joke that Diaz and Timberlake were real life partners for several years, although she is now dating a baseball player.

Elizabeth’s competitor for Scott’s affections is Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch), a bright, chirpy, idealistic teacher, who comes across as almost clinically insane. Amy is as big a dag as Scott, and even more irritating. Presiding over the entire mess is principal, Wally Snur (John Michael Higgins), whose office is encrusted with effigies of dolphins.

As the story progresses we see that Elizabeth will go to any lengths to succeed in her twin aims of snaring Scott, and getting the cash for her new cleavage. Director, Jake Kasdan, maintains Elizabeth’s vileness for at least two-thirds of the movie, but gradually the germ of sentimentality finds its way into the story. Contrary to all appearances, Elizabeth eventually shows us she has a heart, while the sugary Amy grows more and more demented.

In this vulgar, crude, and occasionally hilarious film, it is disappointing to find that Elizabeth has any redeeming features whatsoever. It sends out mixed messages suggesting that – like Larry Crowne or The Conspirator – there is actually a moral to this tale. What could it be? Here are some possibilities:
- It is better to be an underachiever than a hard worker.
- Slobs and sluts have more fun.
- Teaching is a hopelessly debased profession.
- The only thing worth striving for is cash.

Any of these maxims might be held up as a negative mirror to the relentless hypocrisy of American life, in which every public figure has to be a God-fearing paragon of wholesome family values. We all know this is more of a Hollywood fantasy than anything that can be seen at the cinema. It’s no surprise that films like Bad Teacher are rolling off the assembly line with industrial regularity, or that they make millions at the box office.

As for Cameron Diaz, she’s probably not pining to play Erin Brockovich or Virginia Woolf. Why sweat on the serious stuff when the movie business, if not the entire planet, is infatuated with teen age comedies? Like Marilyn Monroe she has her baseball player, but it’s unlikely she’d leave him for Arthur Miller.

As escapist comedy, Bad Teacher is probably one of the better products in this well-worn genre. Its humour relies more on caricature and less on the gross-out fart and vomit jokes that so many directors fall back on for an easy laugh. There is also an appealing element of self-parody in the art-follows-life pairing of Diaz and Timberlake, with one playing the blonde bitch and the other a squeaky clean do-gooder. When Timberlake/Scott has to sing a song of his own invention called Simpatico, it is a five-star cringe-making moment. It seemed to come so naturally it’s as if he wasn’t even acting.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, August 6, 2011

USA. Rated M, 92 minutes.