In the pursuit of being clever, I've been torn between two ways to begin this review of Bad Teacher. Since the creative team of Gene Stupnitsky, Lee Eisenberg and director Jake Kasdan all felt fine being self-indulgent and smug, then indulge me as I do the same.
When I was in my college days, my friends and I went out to dinner one night and challenged each other to a variety of odd drinks we'd heard of, to see who could take it. Thus I was challenged to something called a "Prairie Dog," a manly but vile concoction of 151 and Tabasco sauce. When the waiter heard that order, he looked at me soulfully and offered me this wisdom: "about the best thing you can say about a prairie dog is that it's short."
And so is Bad Teacher, clocking in at under 90 minutes of 151 and Tabasco.
In comedy, there's a Rule of Two. And if there's not, there should be. The Rule of Two goes like this: there is no Rule of Two, it's a Rule of THREE! Throughout Bad Teacher, the script sets up the rhythm, giving us repetition (though not particularly funny) and then never pays off with that third punchline.
It seems that in putting together this story of a teacher who just won't follow the rules, Stupnitsky and Eisenberg also feel no obligation to follow the rules themselves. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you don't break the one absolutely cardinal rule: be funny.
That's a little unfair. Bad Teacher has a few moments, some from shock at the outrageousness of Cameron Diaz's character, but none of them resonate to form a solid comedy. For the most part, it's the outline of a good idea, but tone deaf as to what would make each element work.
This is not being defensive about the education profession; it's a subject that could withstand a few shots from a movie like this, but nothing about this movie feels true. As far as connection to reality goes, it's as if the screenwriters read a few headlines about hysterical fears about schools and let that suffice as their research.
Diaz stars as Elizabeth Halsey, a bad middle school teacher from the get go. She doesn't know or care to know her students' names. She might not even know the names of her co-workers. But then, we get halfway through the movie before it bothers mentioning what subject she actually teaches, so fair's fair.
As the movie begins, she has skated through her first year, killing time until she can marry a rich man whose name also she barely bothers to know. Elizabeth isn't just a bad teacher; she's a bad human being. Then again, she's also teaching at an Illinois school simultaneously just as bad, because in real life, there's no way that no one would have noticed how terrible she is at molding young minds.
Perhaps this was meant to be a satire of our educational system, but no – it's clear that other teachers actually do care and might be good. Sure, the Principal (John Michael Higgins) has an unhealthy obsession with dolphins, but he seems to be otherwise good at his job. Seems, because nobody ever actually gets shown doing their jobs.
Which brings up another rule, guys: show, don't tell. Okay, so Elizabeth shows her class movies like Stand and Deliver and Dangerous Minds instead of telling them to study. But we barely see any actual teaching, funny or not, though a lot of characters talk about who the good teachers are.
Most egregious is Justin Timberlake's math teacher character Scott Delacorte. We know because he tells us that he is secretly rich and thus trying to give back; in later scenes he has mawkishly bonded with the students. But mostly he's just Justin Timberlake, mocking his own image and too lazy in this movie to even bother winking at us about it.
Working hard but not quite hard enough is Lucy Punch as Elizabeth's rival, Amy Squirrel. A parody of the teacher so into her job that she really can't relate well to adults, Squirrel turns vicious when backed into a corner. Punch tries with the role, but keeps pulling back when it needs to go over the top.
Oh, and Jason Segel lopes through the movie as the disaffected gym teacher with the unrequited hots for Elizabeth, because if there's one thing this movie does get right, it's hitting all the easy targets. Like Elizabeth, Segel's Russell Gettis gets away with a lot of overt behaviors that would cause him problems in the real world, but at least he cares for the kids.
That's more than can be said for Bad Teacher. It doesn't care for the audience's intelligence or its credulousness. Like Elizabeth, all it wants is our money.