By mainstream comedy standards, Bad Teacher barely scrapes a D. This is a real shame as it has talented comic actors working hard to breathe quirky life into a promising concept. The central conceit -let’s have a group of adult actors playing teachers in the manner of immature children -is potentially very funny, but the conventional trajectory of the plot, plus the lack of witty flourishes behind the camera, means the film lacks bite. It’s as if director Jake Kasdan was unsure how to fully exploit the material for maximum satirical effect.
It doesn’t help that star Cameron Diaz, about whom many rude and unfair things are written, is saddled with a character who’s a tiresome, one-note stereotype. Diaz is brilliant with black comedy, as The Last Supper and Being John Malkovich attest, but there’s only so much she can do with such a bitchy caricature, a caricature as joyous as an after-school detention.
Diaz is Elizabeth Halsey, the eponymous teacher who, at the start of the film, leaves her job with the aim of settling down with a rich bloke. Unfortunately, before you can say ‘curl, roll and flick’, said chap has called off the engagement, and three months later, Halsey is back at her former school, turning up to classes hungover, grumpy and foulmouthed. When she espies wealthy new teacher Justin Timberlake, however, she aims to inveigle her way into his affections, but firstly, she needs to raise enough money for the boob job that will secure his undivided attention.
That one gag is stretched mercilessly over the course of the film like a 17th century prisoner on a rack, and unsurprisingly wears very thin. Diaz starts and ends the film in the same place, and yet the half-hearted attempt at sugary redemption near the climax feels like a cheat. The cumulative effect is a bizarre and disjointed one, whereby Diaz soaping herself up in a fund-raising car-wash is less funny than it should be. That’s not to say the scene is gratuitous; it just feels out of place, like so many of the film’s other set-pieces and dialogue.
It’s all because the acting lacks a sense of context, so what we’re left with is a bunch of abrasively quirky performances at odds with the flat direction and scripting. Lucy Punch’s Amy Squirrel, a rival to Timberlake’s affections, is a strange mixture of faux sympathy and wheedling jealousy, and Timberlake himself barely registers, apart from a weird dry humping scene which would be funny… if it were connected to any other part of the narrative. In the end, Jason Segel, as the gym teacher with an eye for Diaz, comes off best, and he positively lights up the screen whenever he appears (which, sadly, is not often enough).