This review was originally published on June 24, 2011. It is being reposted for the home video release.
It’s hard to watch a movie like “Bad Teacher” without evaluating where it falls in the debate over women in Hollywood, especially in this summer of heightened sensitivity to the problem. “Bridesmaids” was essentially appointed the representative of women at the box office, which would seem entirely ridiculous if there were even one more film on the docket for the next few months led by or geared towards women. But as Manohla Dargis pointed out recently, this is a summer without much of a female presence on the big screen. “Bridesmaids,” despite its success, is hardly enough to fix what is now an even more discussed deficiency in Hollywood.
In the context of the Anna Faris profile in the New Yorker earlier this year, Karina Longworth brings up the argument that is now occasionally made about 2011 as the year Hollywood will finally have to deal with its misogyny problem. Of course, 2009 was also supposed to be the “Year of the Woman,” what with “The Hurt Locker,” “It’s Complicated,” “Julie and Julia,” “Bright Star,” etc. and look where we are two years later. Which raises the question: what exactly is one supposed to make of “Bad Teacher”? Dargis wrote it off in her article earlier this month, sight-unseen, due to the admittedly obnoxious car-wash clip in the trailer, while Longworth makes her characterization of the film’s women as “the worst male-invented stereotypes” pretty clear. Yet I’m not so sure.
It seems to me that “Bad Teacher” sits in a strange and awkward place between “Bridesmaids” and “The Hangover: Part II,” to keep things in the framework of this summer. There’s really no way to look at it as an obvious step forward, in the manner of Kristen Wiig’s almost universally commended female-led comedy. Yet at the same time, it doesn’t marginalize its female characters, and I wouldn’t say that Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) is so problematic as to be considered a stereotype. It’s true that she’s an absolutely horrendous person, mean and manipulative, but is that enough?
Elizabeth is effective because she can manipulate men, which is the core of her strategy to get rich quick and never need a job ever again. She’s got it figured out in the very beginning, before she gets dumped by her rich fiancé (or, more accurately, by her impending mother-in-law). To fix the problem, she spends the next school year trying desperately to get breast implants and subsequently another exorbitantly rich gentleman. This is a film in which almost all of the men are idiots. Justin Timberlake plays the inane and idealistic substitute teacher/heir to a luxury watch fortune upon whom Elizabeth places her trophy-wife hopes. The school principal (John Michael Higgins) is easily distracted by dolphin figurines, and the embarrassing stupidity extends to her biker roommate (Eric Stonestreet) and a standardized testing official (Thomas Lennon).
Now, I acknowledge that a movie in which all men are incompetent doesn’t necessarily make for feminist filmmaking, and I wouldn’t argue that “Bad Teacher” is the kind of female-driven film that Hollywood so desperately needs. But it also can’t be so easily dismissed as being part of the problem. Elizabeth and her bitter rival across the hall, the aptly named Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch), are constantly at odds, but not in the shrieky and ridiculous style of “Bride Wars.” Along with Jason Segel’s gym teacher, the two are some of the only characters in the flick with any sense. While by the end you don’t exactly like either of them, it seems to be less sexist so much as it is the inevitable result of a film consciously about despicable people.
Finally, the bond between Russell (Segel) and Elizabeth has more to it than just the obligatory romance to finish of the movie. She doesn’t come around to being a good person, renouncing her manipulative ways, but instead finds someone who also seems to believe everyone else in the world is kind of incompetent. We like Russell a lot more than any of the other characters, primarily because Segel has plenty of charisma, but the one main difference between the two characters is that while she takes advantage of people, he expresses his mild misanthropy by laughing.
I think much of the debate really just derives from the movie’s mediocre comedy and uninteresting narrative. Timberlake’s character gets almost no good humor, despite how violently it’s attempted. There are so many missed opportunities, from the underuse of Molly Shannon to the somewhat unfortunate shying away from anything truly dark à la “Bad Santa.” You can tell that the screenplay is by the more mild-mannered writers of “The Office.” The car wash scene is in bad taste, but it’s more painful from the perspective of someone who likes good jokes than as a feminist.
Elizabeth isn’t so much a one-dimensional stereotype of the manipulative bitch as she is a one-and-a-half-dimensional product of bad writing. This may not be a feminist masterpiece, or even a “Bridesmaids,” but it’s hardly the worst of Hollywood’s problems; see the poster for the upcoming “Horrible Bosses” that mince no words by labeling Jennifer Aniston “maneater” right off the bat.
“Bad Teacher” is now on DVD and Blu-ray.
Recommended if you like: “Bad News Bears” (the 2005 remake); “What Happens in Vegas”; “The Office”