Bad Teacher wants to be Bad Santa but it’s afraid to go as far as Billy Bob Thornton’s gleeful middle finger to holidays and proper treatment of children. So it ends up trapped in a nowhere middle-ground, somewhere between Bad Santa and the equally hilarious but family friendly Jack Black movie School of Rock. Both of those movies had somewhere to go and a way to get there, but Bad Teacher just goes and doesn’t really seem to know where it’s going.
The script has its moments and the cast has a few too. Cameron Diaz plays Elizabeth, an aging hot chick who we assume has skated through life on her good looks and now well into middle age still hasn’t quite figured out that this isn’t going to work forever. When we meet her she’s somehow found employment as a middle school teacher, though she would seem to have no real qualifications and absolutely no actual interest in teaching. Taking a page from the aforementioned Jack Black movie, she shows up to school hung-over, slumps over at her desk and grunts at the kids before starting a movie. Between periods she stalks a potentially rich male teacher played by Justin Timberlake and spars with a rival, played by plucky Lucy Punch.
Elizabeth is looking for a way out of the corner she’s backed herself into; middle aged, with no life or prospects, she dreams of getting breast implants assuming this will somehow push her over the top in her quest to snag a rich man. She has no real attributes of worth, and it’s hard to root for her. There’s a way around that. Billy Bob Thornton’s Bad Santa character was a sad sack piece of shit, yet still we rooted for him. We rooted for him because in a way we understood, his life was crap, it had always been crap, and in a sense he’d simply been beaten down by it. He was a product of his environment, like a more vulgar take on Willy Loman. Bad Teacher seems to want us to feel the same way about Elizabeth, but it doesn’t work since we know she’s lived a charmed existence till now, living the high-life by using and abusing others, getting whatever she wants simply by virtue of her good looks. You look at Elizabeth and you think she deserves whatever’s coming to her.
That feeling makes it harder to laugh when she’s doing shtick, which mostly revolves around being mean to other students and teachers. The thing is, she’s never mean in a clever way, it’s more bitchy, and she’s never really over the top enough to surprise you, just cruel enough to piss other people off. If you’re going to do a movie like this, a movie whose comedy revolves entirely around what a horrible human being your protagonist is, then you’ve got to do something to shock us. Elizabeth mostly glares at people and takes a nap on her desk. It grows old quick. I guess she smokes pot in her car once. Shocking stuff.
Things only get worse as the movie goes on. Elizabeth skates on like that for most of the film, until we get near to the end and I guess someone on the production realized that this wasn’t going anywhere. That’s when the whole thing takes a sudden turnaround, as Elizabeth transforms from a pale imitation of Bad Santa into a third-rate Billy Madison, minus the jealous feelings towards amorous penguins. There’s also a relationship with a gym teacher, played by Jason Segel. He’s the most likable character in the film, the most normal of the bunch, and since Elizabeth is such a horrible dead end you may find yourself actively rooting against any relationship between them, no matter how hard the movie struggles to make it seem as though they should be together.
I’ve probably been too harsh. The truth is that Bad Teacher contains a least a few laughs and you get the sense that somewhere in the script there’s a legitimately great comedy waiting to get out. Unfortunately if it’s there, I doubt director Jake Kasdan would have any idea how to make it. Timing is everything in comedy, and Kasdan gets most of his timing all wrong. The movie’s funniest moments succeed almost in spite of his direction, carried by great performances from people like Segel and Timberlake, or buoyed by Cameron Diaz playing up a bitchy caricature of herself, a caricature we already know all too well. If you’ve never seen Bad News Bears, Bad Santa, or one of a dozen other better movies about adults being mean to kids with the word “Bad” in the title, maybe you’ll think this is the funniest thing since Adam Sandler pissed his pants on a field trip. I have seen those movies, and I didn’t.