I’ve had my fair share of eccentric teachers. In junior high, there was Mr. Plotsker, who despite being fit as a horse, walked with a cane. Sometimes he would twirl it around during long-winded lectures. Other times, he’d pretend it was a machine gun. “Close, but no cigar,” he’d proclaim, pointing its end towards a student, before imitating gunfire. Then, in high school, I met Mr. Harris, a towering figure (however, this large physique didn’t detract him from a fear of pigeons), who always, in the same monotone voice, explained how he couldn’t wait until retirement. But Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz), the focal point of director Jake Kasdan’s (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story) Bad Teacher takes the cake for “most idiosyncratic educator.” This, however, doesn’t mean it makes the grade.
The film opens with an end of the school year ceremony in which teachers and facility members sip champagne and congratulate each other for showing the restraint not to strangle the more difficult students. Amongst the celebrations, Principal Wally Snur (John Michael Higgins) announces that Ms. Halsey, after working as a teacher for only a year, is leaving. Was she disgruntled with the meager salary? Were the kids too much to handle? Nope, turns out she’s recently married her sugar daddy and chosen to live off of his credit card. But that reality comes crashing down when his mother decides to break up this “match made in Heaven.” Now unemployed (and rooming with a guy she’d found on Craigslist), Halsey (reluctantly) returns to a life of teaching.
At work, she meets Russell Gettis (Jason Segal), a hunky gym teacher that tries to win over her affection, and Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch), the veteran oddball who runs the class next door. But Halsey, who passes the class-time playing DVDs, napping, drinking at her desk, and imaging ways to raise money for a breast enhancement, has her sights set on Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), a substitute teacher whose family runs a lucrative watchmaking business.
For a comedy set in school, the students don’t play much of a role. There are a few exceptions, like Sasha Abernathy (Katilyn Dever), a teacher’s pet who bakes Halsey a batch of holiday cookies, and Rodrigo (Daniel Castro), whose nickname, “Acne Kid,” speaks for itself. Problem is, these characters aren’t fully fleshed out and only appear for a few minutes before disappearing. The same rings true for Diaz’s adult co-stars.
Save for Amy, who, appalled over Halsey’s unorthodox teaching methods (or lack thereof), quickly becomes her rival, the supporting characters don’t lend much weight to the plot. They stand in for a few (unfunny) jokes and then make their escapes. To me, this was both a flaw and a blessing: Problematic because I like multifaceted relationships, but a godsend because Diaz, who works well by herself, has little-to-no chemistry with her cast mates. This includes Timberlake, her former beau (no wonder, they broke up). Luckily, if there’s one standout, it’s Punch (who usually infuriates me). She, surprisingly enough, gives color to an already likeable (if not a bit extreme) role.
But despite the film’s raging pessimism, screenwriters Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg make it an obligation to end Bad Teacher on a high-note . . . even if it means leaving out a few important plot points. That’s to say, the third act is a mess. What made Halsey so cynical in the first place? Has she always wanted to be a teacher? Has she always been dependent? What inspired her sudden interest in genuine love rather than cold, hard cash? None of these questions are answered, and it’s a shame because the first 60 minutes-or-so, which have the charmingly brazen Diaz socking her pupils with dodge balls and stealing the answer keys for standardized tests, are entertaining. That’s the charm that they should have embraced. Instead we get the same woman skipping across a gymnasium with a smile on her face. Boooooring.
All in all, Bad Teacher gets an A for its concept but a C+ for the execution.