Bad Teacher Dir. Jake Kasdan

[Sony Pictures; 2011]

Styles: comedy
Others: Year One, Orange County, Dangerous Minds

It’s a well-worn bad joke that any moron can become a teacher in America. Another one is that women act like sluts and artificially enlarge their breasts in order to snag well-paid, vapid, interchangeably handsome corporate types. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to make a movie based around these stale ideas, provided the movie does something with them. But when culturally codified bad jokes are used as an excuse for a relentless piling-on of the same, you don’t end up with a movie so much as a bitter stand-up’s mean-spirited routine reshaped into film form. Hence, Bad Teacher.

A career slacker with the kind of name typically tacked on to characters whose writers don’t give a shit about them, Cameron Diaz’s Elizabeth Halsey is not, indeed, very good at her job teaching middle school kids. In fact, as the movie opens, she is quitting to be kept by her moneyed fiancé, but she’s promptly booted out of his large house after it dawns on him that she’s just after his money. Her next step is to reacquire her job, which, contrary to the condition of the current job market, doesn’t prove difficult. On her first day back, she runs into Scott (Justin Timberlake doing his best imitation of acting), a handsome, new substitute who promptly lets slip that he is the heir to a large fortune. Scott becomes her new target, and assuming she needs larger breasts in order to land him, Elizabeth sets out to raise money for implants. The movie is mostly about Elizabeth bilking the cash for her operation out of the middle schoolers she’s been tasked with teaching

If Bad Teacher were clever (and, having been written by Gene Stupnitzky and Lee Eisenberg, veterans of the frequently great American The Office, it might have been), the reductive laziness, bad editing, shapeless scripting, and the jokes of your typical put-down comic might have paralleled the horribleness of the teaching. Wouldn’t it be kind of brilliant if the movie were structured in the same manner as Diaz’s character’s syllabus — an intentional pastiche of rote speeches, tired platitudes, film clips, trite aphorisms, and the like? Up until the end, the audience might be fooled into thinking this is the case. But, as is required by all movies that are nothing more than crowd-pleasers, Elizabeth’s relentless depravity and exploitation of her students are forgiven at the eleventh hour, when a requisite pat ending arbitrarily brands her a hero.

When you get down to it, the biggest problem with movies like this isn’t that they blithely break up their scenes into discrete shots that make everyone appear to be acting in a bubble, nor is it that they bribe otherwise talented comedians (Jason Segel, Lucy Punch, and Thomas Lennon, in this case) to regurgitate embarrassing lines. The real problem seems to be that the filmmakers, Stupnitsky, Eisenberg and director Jake Kasdan, seem to think they’re making an offensive, tastelessly hilarious film, but none of them have the balls to do anything actually daring. The desire to offend leads to scatological humor and to tepid racism and/or stereotyping, the kind of easy outs that put-down comics thrive on, mostly without knowing it. Being actually offensive — being like, say, Luis Buñuel or Todd Solondz (but in this case, I’d take the Farrelly brothers or James Gunn) — takes complete surety of concept and craft, a seamless alignment of comedy and style that gives some sense of purpose to the offensiveness. This movie’s concept is a single joke, stretched beyond limpness, and its craft is basically nonexistent.

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