After the critical and commercial success of “Bridesmaids,” and an escalation in the discussion of women’s place in comedy both in the more niche-y blogosphere and in mainstream popular culture (illuminated most wonderfully earlier this year in a gonzo episode of “30 Rock“), “Bad Teacher,” about a foul-mouthed, irresponsible, self-centered, drug-addled teacher (who also happens to be a woman) seems particularly well-timed. And while the comedy is periodically laugh-out-loud, shoot-soda-out-of-your-nose funny, it also ultimately feels like a missed opportunity; like a substitute that breezes out of your life a semester too soon without ever making much of an impact.
A sitcom-y, patched together narrative doesn’t help, nor does an uneven tone and comedic pace. Just as “Bad Teacher” seems to get into an amusingly raunchy groove, which it does sporadically, it tangentially bends elsewhere, loses its momentum and rarely delivers any deep-seated laughs that stick past the moment. Written by Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, of “The Office” fame, while the picture is an improvement from the godawful “Year One” (though maybe also to blame for that one is director Harold Ramis) which they penned, there’s still traces of episodic television as the movie goes from scene-to-scene, never taking much time to really get to the heart of a sequence in any remotely or relatively deep manner (sure, it’s a comedy, but look how “Bridesmaids” or almost any Apatow comedy generally pulls this off so effortlessly).
The movie begins with our titular lousy instructor, Elizabeth Halsey (an underrated Cameron Diaz), saying goodbye to her fellow teachers at John Adams Middle School — including her overly enthusiastic principle Wally (a typically funny and understated John Michael Higgins), who has cheerfullly nicknamed the school “JAMS” and her “friend” and co-worker Lynn Davies (Phyllis Smith from “The Office”). Leaving after one brief school year to spend time planning her upcoming nuptials, Ms. Halsey, as her students call her, jumps in her expensive European sports car, zooms out of the parking lot, and arrives at her home, where her moneyed finance, and his domineering mother, are waiting…to break-up with her.
Cut to the beginning of the semester, where a defeated Ms. Halsey returns to JAMS, even more depressed and uninterested in teaching her apt pupils then she was before. She sits behind her desk, stoned or drunk out of her mind, and instead of educating, plays movies for her students – everything from “Stand and Deliver” to “Scream” (she probably used an IMDB search for “schools”). She is motivated, however, by the arrival of a super-rich, squeaky clean and single substitute teacher played by Justin Timberlake, whose mere presence spurs her to want breast implants; because in her eyes big fake titties are the only way to score a husband.
There’s also her rivalry with another teacher named Amy Squirrell (a scene-stealing Lucy Punch, who might just be the film’s MVP), a hyper-active, over-eager teacher across the hall who speaks in clipped witticisms and who, in all her sunny benevolence, hates the very fabric of Ms. Halsey’s lazy being. Jason Segel pops up as a sweet natured gym teacher who pursues Ms. Halsey to no avail; he’s an amiable, laid back and amusing character, but he also feels like a romantic script device that doesn’t really have much of a constructed role. Like the character’s body; he’s only doughily defined.
Sometimes “Bad Teacher” is enjoyably trashy – a decently paced comedy that takes most of the tropes of the men-behaving-badly comedy sub-genre, and competently renegotiates it for a female lead. Diaz, in one of the finer performances of her career, brings a level of giddy exuberance to her role – nothing is too outrageous, and everything that comes out of her mouth, no matter how disagreeable or foul, sounds sweet and almost loveable. And director Jake Kasdan, an underrated filmmaker in his own right, maneuvering between large studio fare like the bizarre Judd Apatow-produced music industry send-up “Walk Hard” and smaller independent stuff like “The TV Set,” has a knack not only for punchy comedic rhythms, but also in casting the movie, front to back, with funny people that oftentimes elevate the film to something more. Eric Stonestreet from “Modern Family” appears as Ms. Halsey’s degenerate roommate, while Thomas Lennon turns in a winningly weird performance as a standardized test administrator that Ms. Halsey takes advantage of.
Punch, it should be said, makes a game comedic foil for Diaz, her English accent undetectable under an edgy, Midwestern aw-shucks charm. Oddly enough the weak link in the cast is probably Timberlake, who brings his trademark comic goofiness, honed on memorable “Saturday Night Live” guest spots, but pushes it too far into the territory of unintentionally campy shtick. Ironically it is the men in the script that are weakly written. Both Timberlake and Segel’s characters are nothing more than romantic interests and while Segel has an inherent charm that raises his character to a slightly more interesting degree, both men’s roles are bland and like secondary after thoughts.
Ultimately, though, the “Bad Teacher” script gets the better of it. Occasionally you want to applaud the screenplay, for the simple fact that Diaz’s character goes through a very low-level character arc, and the predictable redemptive changes that obviously come in at the end are elusive and mild. Diaz commits, fully, to her performance, and it’s outstanding that the powers that be didn’t force some kind of sentimentalized cop-out of an ending — though it is marginally warm and fuzzy all things considered. But elsewhere, the script’s a minefield. Subplots are introduced and abandoned just as quickly, with a number of plot points just glazed over or not addressed at all. And these aren’t just niggling details, these are big movements of the story, which mean that story problems soon become structural problems, ones that are more gaping and harder to repair.
Not that a comedy lives and dies by its screenplay, since “Bad Teacher” delivers in a lot of substantial ways, first and foremost as a frequently (but not consistently) funny movie in a summer that has been defined, laughs-wise, by the odious “The Hangover Part II.” But the story issues affect it severely, doing a lot to dampen the movie’s senseless, obscenity-laced fun. Perhaps most importantly what’s lacking is chemistry. Neither Diaz, Timberlake or Segel tend to click in any comedically resonant way. Lucy Punch is ebullient and pops every scene she’s in to life, but the script aside, the major ingredient missing in this picture is a lively spark. While not mechanical in nature, it’s just a few notes away from having that dynamic energy that makes for a fully satisfying comedy.
It’s also sadly missing that added dimension that made “Bridesmaids” so special and essential – a willingness to investigate the real life, occasionally quite sticky aspects of female friendship. “Bad Teacher” is more straightforwardly cartoonish, but it’s often times almost as funny. We’re not sure how it will be interpreted in the context of the current discussion of women in comedy, but if you’re looking for some decent laughs to unwind your brain, “Bad Teacher” will deliver in that respect. However, if you’re looking for something with more meat around its bones, the picture tends to feel like a half-hearted and hurriedly written term-paper that you can only marginally endorse. [B-]