In an era when schools are scandal zones, it's disappointing how timid a movie called Bad Teacher turns out to be. Maybe Billy Bob Thornton spoiled us with his unrepentant Santa who truly earned the adjective "bad." This movie needs more crassness in the classroom.
Cameron Diaz stars as Elizabeth Halsey, a gold digger who rightfully gets dumped by her fiance. That means she's stuck teaching middle school classes, if showing faculty flicks like Stand and Deliver and Lean on Me qualifies as teaching. Elizabeth uses the time to sleep off her previous night's binge and wonder how to finance breast augmentation to trap her next meal ticket.
She's certainly a bad teacher, just not a bad one. Jake Kasdan's movie has no intention of shocking viewers even though the potential is there. There are no Debra LaFave shenanigans with a student, although Justin Timberlake's role as a timid but rich dork Elizabeth chases could be written younger and recklessly funny. Child abuse is limited to profane wisecracks and dodgeball assault.
Certainly such actions by teachers are deplorable in real life. But in the movies where anything is possible and nobody gets hurt, working off nervous laughter about a serious situation is an opportunity Kasdan misses. Elizabeth isn't contributing to anyone's delinquency but her own, and whatever comedic edge Bad Teacher might have had is ignored.
This is a comedy never proceeding beyond its idea pitch and attractive casting. Diaz looks like a teacher anyone would be hot for, yet doesn't exude much sexuality beyond getting wet and wild at a fundraising carwash. There's no evidence that she's a terrible influence on students, so that angle of last-reel redemption is lost.
It may be an ego issue; Thornton didn't mind making Santa Claus reprehensible, and we felt guilty and giddy rooting him on. Diaz wants above all else to remain cute and perky, with only faint roughness around the edges. She's amusing at times but not enough. Blame the screenplay by Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, whose previous credit for the Jack Black flop Year One is all you need to know in order to understand.
Diaz's male co-stars don't fare any better. Timberlake enjoys playing the nerd he isn't in real life but that's a one-note joke better suited for a Saturday Night Live sketch. Jason Segel is criminally underused as a PE coach with eyes for Elizabeth, who would never stoop to date a teacher, so you know she eventually will.
A few snarky gags find their marks, usually involving Lucy Punch and Phyllis Smith as devoted educators set up for ridicule. Punch is a rom-com star waiting to happen, unconventionally lovely and unafraid to muss that up with an awkward grin or a poison ivy rash. Smith scores in the type of role she plays on The Office, a plus-sized woman with a little girl's voice and repressed urges to break rules. Their scenes are like frisky recess periods in an otherwise ordinary school day.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.