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Breaking All the Rules

by Laura Leon on June 29, 2011

Bad Teacher
Directed by Jake Kasdan

There’s something exhilarating about watching a beautiful woman like Cameron Diaz play such a downright nasty woman as Elizabeth Halsey, the title character in Jake Kasdan’s Bad Teacher. We first encounter her as she leaves John Adams Middle School—or, as Principal Snurf (John Michael Higgins) calls it, JAMS!—in a gust of gravel and cigarette smoke, bestowing a nasty epithet on her former colleagues as she heads off to a millionaire marriage.

Uh-oh, hold up. Seems her fiancé has figured out that her gold-digging ways outweigh whatever other benefits Elizabeth may have brought to the relationship, and so she’s down and out, and heading back in September to another year teaching 7th grade.

Elizabeth is heartless and mean, and that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of her teaching style, which consists of popping in DVDs like Stand and Deliver while sneaking sips from airport-size bottles of hooch. Having been so close to being a rich wife, she devises any number of ways to get money to pay for a boob job, reasoning that this is a requisite for trophy wifedom. The movie follows Elizabeth as she shamelessly takes money from her students’ parents, ostensibly to tutor them or buy their supplies, and does a Cool Hand Luke-style car wash in short shorts, to the astonishment of the school’s dads. Her “across the hall” mate, Ms. Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch), is suspicious, whereas men like gym teacher Russell Gettis (Jason Segel) and newbie bowtie-wearing sub Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake) bask in whatever attention Liz throws their way.

Bad Teacher, which was written by Office alumni Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, benefits from a crack ensemble class, which includes Phyllis Snow as Elizabeth’s lunch-buying “friend,” and Tom Lennon as a state testing official who gets more than he bargains for when he agrees to meet Halsey. Punch plays her oh-so-perky teacher with zest, barely disguising a secret malicious nature. Unfortunately, the movie relies too heavily on the notion of women as romantic rivals; in this case, they are vying for Scott, who, while really dorky, hails from a really rich family. The sexual politics are old hat, and one can’t help but wonder what subversive fun the movie would have had if, instead, it had focused on career competition.

While Diaz clearly is having a field day insulting kids and adults alike, she is almost a little too mean, a bit too bullying, making us hard-pressed to find anything redeeming about her. It’s not like the kids are absolute jerks, and she’s our doppelganger, forced to put up with rude students and entitled parents. The ending is ludicrous, as if the filmmakers were unable to come up with a believably happy coda to the hell that Elizabeth wrought; but along the way, there are, amid the gross-out setpieces, classic bits that moviegoers will long remember and recite. Just the sight of Justin Timberlake singing a self-penned love song, off key, is worth the price of admission.