Jun 19, 2011

Bad Teacher [15]

Dir: Jake Kasdan
Is there anything more depressing, as a movie fan, than sitting in a cinema, watching a comedy, and not laughing? Not just at one joke, not just at one scene, but at an entire 100 minute film? Time stretches before you, like a vast desert, and a laugh - just one laugh - becomes the impossible to find oasis. This is what watching Bad Teacher is like.

Cameron Diaz plays Elizabeth Halsey, who returns to teaching after her rich fiancĂ© breaks up with her, with a plan to snare herself another guy to take care of her. She's a terrible teacher, and instead of doing anything with her kids shows them inspirational teacher movies while she sleeps. When she meets rich kid supply teacher Scott (Timberlake) she decides he's the man for her, and that she has to get a boob job to snag him. Cue all manner of moneymaking scams to help her get the $10,000 she needs for her new rack.

There are talented people involved at every level of Bad Teacher. Diaz' kooky charm and dazzling smile have served her well, but she's also a capable actress (see Being John Malkovich and tell me otherwise), Timberlake is, surprisingly, becoming an unpredictable but often engaging actor, and the supporting cast is packed with funny people from Jason Segel, to John Michael Higgins, to British actress Lucy Punch (as a super perky teacher who is Elizabeth's rival for Scott's attention). Behind the camera is Jake Kasdan, who made the very funny Orange County. Every time I see something like this happen; a collection of people who seem talented and intelligent uniting for an idea so utterly misconceived as that of Bad Teacher, I really wonder how it happened. Is there some sort of Hollywood party where entire production teams go and ingest a hallucinogen that makes them think that what they're about to work on is "THE BEST FUCKING IDEA IN THE HISTORY OF THE FUCKING WORLD"? It would explain a lot.

Alfred Hitchcock was a great man, and right about many things, but mostly he was right when he said that the three most important elements of a good movie are "the script, the script, and the script". Guess where Bad Teacher begins to go wrong.

One of the major difficulties is with Cameron Diaz' character. Yes, she's supposed to be a bad teacher (and that's actually something that's worked in the past, Kindergarten Cop is no masterpiece, but the incongruity of Arnie as an out of his depth teacher is funny), the problem is that there is nothing even a tiny bit likeable about Diaz' Elizabeth. Elizabeth is shallow, drug addled, an alcoholic, she not only doesn't care about her students, she hates them (and in one scene throws basketballs at the heads of several of them, which is pretty dangerous and would get her immediately fired), on top of that she's a lying, manipulative, thieving bitch who is incapable of a polite interaction that doesn't serve her in some way. And this movie wants us to like her. Worst of all, she's not funny, because Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg (who have written Ghostbusters 3, Lord help us) seem to think that being an awful person is the same thing as being amusing. It's not. It actually actively works against the film, because you're so alienated by the character that you start thinking about the huge logic gaps. For instance; do none of Elizabeth's students talk to their parents? Does she only have one class a day? Does no other teacher ever observe one of her classes? I shouldn't be thinking about these plot holes, and if the film were funny, if Elizabeth were more than just an inappropriately sweary bitch, I wouldn't be.

The other huge problem with the writing of Elizabeth is that she (like all of the characters) has no arc. If anything by the end of the film she's worse, MORE of a bitch, prepared to potentially ruin the lives of two nice people for her own ends (and again, we're expected to cheer). If you want to make a film about an unlikeable character, fine, but you have to move them on. Again, look at Kindergarten Cop; Arnie starts out as a very inappropriate teacher, you could even say he bullies the kids in some early scenes, but the screenplay allows him to learn, to become a better person, so we get to like him and feel comfortable with laughing along with the movie (again, it's not like I'm holding it up as some masterpiece, it just does the basics quite well). There is a brief moment where it seems that Bad Teacher might go that way, as Elizabeth discovers a cash prize for the teacher with the best test scores, and begins to actually teach her class, but the film abandons this idea almost as soon as it has it, and goes down a different road - one that makes Elizabeth EVEN WORSE.

Sadly the rest of the film is no better. Every single character is unstintingly annoying. Chief offender in these stakes is British actress Lucy Punch who, as in Woody Allen's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, gives a performance good enough that I want to see her in more movies, but as a character so totally insufferable that after ten minutes the sound of her voice became like fingernails running down a blackboard in my soul. Punch's Amy Squirrel is so irrepressibly, aggressively, infuriatingly perky that she's almost a parody of a manic pixie dream girl, and while Punch totally sells her performance, Amy is the kind of person I'd cross the road to avoid, so being trapped in a movie in which she's the major supporting character was a nightmare.

Jason Segel blandly dude's his way through his handful of scenes, and seems to make no attempt to play an actual character. The same can't be said of Justin Timberlake as Scott, but, again, the writing is just broken. Scott, too, is insufferable; a new man so desperate to please everyone that he'll agree with whatever the last statement made was. He's also set up as being naive and nice to a fault, which makes the film's pivotal scene, in which he dry humps Diaz, cheating on his girlfriend, nonsensical. That scene is just one of many which feels half finished. Scott has thus far been a very nice man, so why is he suddenly cheating on his girlfriend with Elizabeth? There needs to be another scene, maybe one where Elizabeth convinces him that the rulebook (it could even be an actual rulebook, in another incongruity he's stupid enough to buy that) says it's not cheating if they keep their clothes on.

This tossed off, unfinished, who gives a fuck attitude pervades the film, from Kasdan's flat visuals to the lack of actual jokes (what is the joke when Elizabeth show her class movies over and over? That's not a joke, it's a setup). But the real blame has to fall on the awful, awful writing, on a screenplay that is broken at the most fundamental levels, that is written by people who appear to have no idea how to write an evolving character, or simply don't care enough to bother. Bad Teacher is a terrible, terrible film. It's boring as all hell, packed with unlikeable characters and about as funny as stepping in dog shit on your way to a friend's wedding.

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