Bad Teacher (2011)
The teaching profession sure is taking its share of beatings lately. After the critical documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’, the loss of collective bargaining in several states, and the continual belief that teachers, despite having to take college courses and/or pass content tests routinely for license renewal, know nothing (full disclosure: I work in the teaching field), along comes the crude comedy, Bad Teacher. This is a comedy that wants a passing grade without showing its work.
Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) is a figure that lives up to the promise of the film’s title. She drinks, smokes pot, sleeps, and all while in class. She looks down on her peers who actively attempt to be engaging to students, like the high-energy Miss Squirrel (Lucy Punch). The school’s gym teacher (Jason Segel) keeps trying to chip away at Elizabeth’s surly, apathetic demeanor, but she continues to shoot him down. Elizabeth’s attention is focused squarely on the handsome substitute teacher, Mr. Delecorte (Justin Timberlake). Not only is he handsome, he’s from a wealthy family. The only thing standing in her gold digging way is Miss Squirrel, who also has an interest in courting the studly sub.
Let’s analyze the bounds of having an unlikable protagonist. There’s a difference between an anti-hero and a generally disreputable lead character. An anti-hero usually has some interior good, or at least a relatable core. An anti-hero generally finds some small measure or redemption or change for the better, even if met through unorthodox means. An anti-hero doesn’t beg to be liked, but the trick is that the audience eventually does like this nontraditional lead. We do not have to agree with the values or behaviors of our lead. You do want to care and desire the character to reach some measure of happiness or whatever their goal is, perhaps an inkling of personal change. Examples include Bad Santa, Goodfellas, Jack Sparrow and Alex DeLarge, nearly every Clint Eastwood character, and take your pick from Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez’s oeuvre. A wholly unlikable protagonist is another concern. If you are so turned off by the protagonist you could not care less what befalls them. Whether they reach their goal, get away with their plot, or even risk life and limb, you do not care.
Bad Teacher suffers from having an unpleasant, obnoxious, selfish, greedy, churlish twit as its lead. Elizabeth is no dashing rogue, no charming cad, no subversive combatant against a corrupt system, nor is she is she a vulnerable individual lashing out to mask her pain or insecurity. All of those qualities would help make for a complicated but ultimately likeable hero or heroine. Instead, what Bad Teacher gives us is a woman that is so thoroughly unpleasant that you tune out early, severing all connection to a comedy. Bad move. Elizabeth’s one goal is to collect enough money through whatever means necessary to afford a boob job. And if she can bring other people down that annoy her, never mind if they are actually good people or teachers, then victory is all the sweeter. Bad Teacher‘s problem is that you don’t want Elizabeth to succeed, you want her to be punished. Elizabeth isn’t likable bad or truly nasty enough to be memorable. She’s the adult version of the popular girl that got away with everything. I never felt an ounce of pity for this person. There is no redemption for this woman, even if she starts treating a small handful of people mildly better. Acting 2% more like a human being does not qualify as progress. How did this woman get into teaching in the first place and for what purpose? There are a lot less strenuous ways to earn a paycheck.
I started feeling for Elizabeth’s rival, Miss Squirrel. Sure, she’s that hyperactive, goody-two-shoes, incredibly cheerful personality that can become grating in large doses, but she’s the only figure in the movie that displays a genuine interest in teaching. Everyone else just seems to be walking around. Elizabeth gets through months of teaching by showing inspirational teacher movies (Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds – no School of Rock?) and sleeping off her hangovers at her desk. Miss Squirrel is a bit obsessive about her job but she cares, and in the film’s void of having a likeable center I gravitated to the spastic, alternative foil. I began rooting for Miss Squirrel to root out her rival’s lies, expose her bad/illegal behavior, and earn some vindication. It was she that I latched onto sympathetically. I rooted for the character that was served up for ridicule by the filmmakers. What does that say about the movie? It also helps that Punch (Dinner for Schmucks, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger) gives the strongest comedic performance. In the realm of Bad Teacher, the good, competent, idealistic, passionate educators are the ones unjustly punished by film’s end.
Diaz (Knight and Day, The Green Hornet) can do the salty, spunky stuff in her sleep, and often in Bad Teacher she seems to be on autopilot, dispensing with the vulgarity without a true glint of madness or enjoyment. She just seems to be irritated by everyone, including the audience. Timberlake (The Social Network) is playing aloof but could have easily been replaced by any decent-looking comic actor. Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I Love You, Man) gives the film a much-needed jolt when he appears onscreen. Too bad his screen time amounts to about 10 minutes and ends in a rather trite fashion with his gym teacher miraculously taming the shrew. Several other comedic actors are wasted in one-bit parts including John Michael Higgins, Molly Shannon, Phyllis Smith (TV’s The Office), Matt Besser (TV’s Upright Citizen’s Brigade), David “Gruber” Allen (TV’s Freaks and Geeks), and Eric Stonestreet (Emmy-winner for Modern Family).
All of this would be marginally forgivable if the film were just funnier. The jokes are stuck in the same gear, mainly Elizabeth being rude or outrageous. It’s a recipe that gets repeated too often, only altering clarifying details. The school has a car wash and Elizabeth dresses provocatively, scrubbing dirty automobiles with a nubile and sudsy devotion not seen since 1980s heavy metal music videos, the heyday of car washing imagery (there sure were a lot of filthy cars in Reagan’s America). The men are agog. It’s the same joke on repeat. She drinks. She says something inappropriate at school. She gets high. People are agog. Bad Teacher is set up from a comedic front to be 100 minutes of reaction shots. It’s like director Jake Kasdan (Orange County, Walk Hard) has to rely on a glut of reaction shots to sell the gags. Why are the kids so meaningless in the comedy? Surely you would think the screenwriters would want to have some students as main characters as well, if nothing else than as a gauge for their lead. Elizabeth does give some advice to a lovesick dorky kid, but her advice is more of a tough love. When Elizabeth discovers there’s a bonus for whoever’s class has the highest state testing scores, you’d think this would be a rally the troops moment. She actually starts teaching and utilizing her skills to get her class to learn, albeit for a personal financial incentive. You would assume then that this might be a changing point for the character, where she actually discovers that she may like teaching or that she does in fact have some aptitude for the profession. Nope. She just resorts to cheating and blackmailing the maker of the state test (Thomas Lennon). I would applaud this narrative pivot, avoiding the expected, if it led to a funnier series of jokes.
The teaching profession is ripe for an astute, mordant satire exploding the politics of the position. Bad Teacher is not that movie. It’s not even close to that movie. It is, however, a comedy that is weighed down by an abhorrent lead character. Diaz’s heroine is unlikable to the point that she turns you off from the whole movie. I suppose there’s a certain measure of bravery having a mainstream studio movie with such an unpleasant main character that doesn’t give a damn about redemption. In the end, watching an appalling egotist get theirs in the end can lead to some sliver of satisfaction, but when that same detestable character gets away with their dastardly deeds? You feel robbed. That’s Bad Teacher in a nutshell. It robs you of laughs, money, and time.
Nate’s Grade: C