A foul-mouthed reprobate working in a traditionally wholesome profession with young people secretly plots to serve her own ends. Sound familiar? Although the two have no above-the-line credits in common, “Bad Teacher” is essentially “Bad Santa” with a femme lead (Cameron Diaz), set in a middle school instead of a department-store grotto. It’s also nowhere near as gleefully filthy or fun, which would be OK if it had something more to offer, like warmth or a sharper script. Nevertheless, if played right, canny scheduling could help raise pic’s GPA at the B.O. by attracting auds bored with f/x-driven summer fare.
Sony pic has already been handicapped by negative early buzz prompted by a pushed-back release; it preemed in Blighty a week before it opens Stateside, frequently the sign of a stinker. In fact, the big surprise is that “Teacher” isn’t a complete failure, more like a C+/B- student that could have tried harder. Nevertheless, its comic rhythms are out of whack, and sloppy continuity and unfilled story blanks suggest ample post-production surgery on a pic that commenced shooting more than a year ago.
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The heroine’s questionable likability reps another risky variable. While fans of the salty, scabrous humor that made the indie-lite laffer “Bad Santa” a cult favorite will consider “Teacher” sanitized and toothless by comparison, but mainstream auds may be repulsed by the trash-talking, gold-digging and all-around viperous Elizabeth Halsey (Diaz). Chalk it up to sexism, but it’s harder to get auds to embrace a monstrous femme character than a man who’s just as bad or worse. The filmmakers are clearly hoping to cash in on goodwill toward the usually charismatic Diaz, but Jake Kasdan’s direction doesn’t draw out her best, allowing the actress to coast and mug her way through with a slackness that is at least in sync with her character.
Diaz’s Elizabeth is a seventh-grade teacher in an Illinois suburb. It’s never made clear why this blonde bombshell, whose sole ambition is to marry a rich guy, is working in public education in the first place — in fact, nothing about her backstory is made clear. But she’s stuck there after getting dumped by her fiance (Nat Faxon), whose considerable wealth at least explains how Elizabeth happens to own so many Christian Louboutin shoes and designer dresses that mostly hem somewhere near the crotch.
Elizabeth’s version of pedagogy is to put on a different education-themed DVD every day (“Stand and Deliver,” “Dangerous Minds”) while she literally puts her feet up and schemes about how to raise money for breast-augmentation surgery. She thinks she needs a boob job to pull in dishy-but-dim supply teacher Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake, just OK), who comes from a moneyed background. Idealistic Scott is actually better suited to terminally chipper, passive-aggressive fellow teacher Amy Squirrel (a scene-stealing Lucy Punch), while Elizabeth clearly has more in common with gym teacher Russell Gettis (Jason Segel), who at least shares her taste in sarcasm and pot smoking.
It’s pretty obvious which way the chips will fall romantically by the end, so the only suspense here is in seeing how bad Elizabeth will be. The answer is, not very. Apart from partying, cursing like a sailor, being brutally honest with her students about their inadequacies, committing a little light embezzlement and fraud, and trying to steal Scott from Amy, she’s actually more not-so-bad-once-you-get-to-know-her teacher.
As if in an attempt to portray Elizabeth as worse than she is, the other thesps are made to look as manically squeaky-clean as possible, though the script by Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg (“Ghostbusters III”) lacks the surreal quality that would make the material appealing to a proper stoner crowd. At its best, the pic’s study of low-stakes workplace politics recalls Stupnitsky and Eisenberg’s contributions to NBC’s The Office,” especially when making smug people look stupid. (Timberlake’s Scott gets one of the pic’s biggest laughs when he explains that he and Amy went to an Ethiopian restaurant: “They finally got their own cuisine! It’s progress!”)
What’s singularly lacking here is any sense of how to use the underage characters, who, apart from one or two, are a barely distinguishable gaggle. If the filmmakers were aiming to make the film more marketable, they might have considered using “School of Rock” rather than “Bad Santa” as a template.
Craft contributions are standard but undistinguished. Apart from school field trip to what is supposed to be Abraham Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Ill., virtually no effort is made to create the illusion that the pic was shot anywhere other than California. Connoisseurs of poor continuity will be delighted with the climactic romantic scene in which it’s patently obvious the stand-in hired to replace Diaz in a shot-reverse-shot conversation with Segel was actually half a foot shorter than the real actress.