Sunday, July 17, 2011

At the Movies: Bad Teacher

The premise of Bad Teacher is pretty much encapsulated by its title. It's a story about a (very) bad teacher (Cameron Diaz), Elizabeth Halsey. She shows videos instead of teaching, smokes pot in the school gym and parking lot, dresses provocatively, pelts her students with dodge balls (not cool, coming from a former dodge ball victim), and misappropriates money from the school car wash to use toward her boob job. Exposed as a gold digger by her former fiance, Elizabeth is forced to move into a low-rent apartment with a biker she found on Craig's List ("Modern Family's" Eric Stonestreet). Nevertheless, things seem to be looking up when 1) trust fund-toting substitute teacher Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake) joins the staff and 2) her lone friend Lynn ("The Office's" Phyllis Smith) tells her that she can earn a huge cash bonus if her class scores well enough on a state standardized test.

As a person and teacher, Elizabeth is just awful. Even worse than her negligence is her out-and-out meanness. (She tells a student that her mother's cookies suck and initially refuses to date Russell Gettis [Jason Segal] because he's a lowly gym teacher.) And yet, it's difficult to completely hate her. She's so outrageous that she's entertaining. Plus, her arch enemy and fellow teacher Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch) is such an annoying goody two shoes that rooting for Elizabeth seems almost okay.

At first glance, it seems odd that the writers, the director, whomever, chose to create an educator so over-the-top inappropriate that she gets away with everything and has nearly no redeeming qualities. (I say "nearly" because she does exhibit a few flashes of insight when she administers tough-love advice to a couple of students, an instance that resurfaces with deus ex machina abruptness at the movie's ending.) Yet upon closer inspection, it's clear that the creators aren't slamming the American education system or implying that our schools are rife with Ms. Halsey clones. Rather, Bad Teacher is a satire on education's many critics, a sort of cleverly crafted rebuttal intended to defend teachers. (As in, surely there's no teacher out there as bad as Ms. Halsey!)

Then again, maybe I'm giving everyone too much credit and it was just meant to be a sensational movie designed to rake in lots of money. (The movie boasts more than a few gross-out moments to vouch for that.)

Heavy issues aside, Bad Teacher is entertaining, largely owing to its cavalcade of teacher's lounge caricatures. John Michael Higgins makes a few appearances as the clueless and dolphin-obsessed Principal Snur, and Phyllis Smith's Lynn is just so . . . Phyllis. (If you watch "The Office," then you know what I mean.) Timberlake's Scott is a preppy dweeb who matches love interest Ms. Squirrel corny catchphrase for corny catchphrase. It's hilarious to watch Russell quietly mock him, which he does at every opportunity in an attempt to win Elizabeth's affections. As for Russell, he loves teaching but shares Elizabeth's irreverence for rules and her disgust for phonies. Therein lies their burgeoning bond.

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