With last month’s Bridesmaids becoming that rare surprise success with audiences, critics, and box office alike, many have insisted that the female raunchy comedy is about to get a moment in the sun. Perfectly timed, we have Bad Teacher arriving in theaters today, practically begging to be treated as a litmus test – was Bridesmaids success a fluke, or an indicator of things to come?
If Bad Teacher is indeed fair game for this example, we’d better hope we’re not about to get more of this genre anytime soon.
You can tell from the title alone that Bad Teacher has a lot of similarities to Bad Santa. Both take a wholesome profession and stick a moral deviant in the role, yielding the contrasting realities that is often the stuff comedy is made of.
In this film, that role – Ms. Halsey – is played by Cameron Diaz. She’s a middle school teacher whose failure to marry up the tax ladder in the first ten minutes of the film leads her to drug-assisted existence, where she boozes up at work in class periods entirely comprised of dated inspirational movies. Diaz isn’t that funny in the role, but opposite so many hugely wholesome personalities, she doesn’t really need to be.
The teacher across the hall, Ms. Squirrell (Lucy Punch), is pointedly perky, and the school’s principal would rather talk about dolphins than deal with his job.
Diaz does deserve credit for making a teacher so, you know, bad, from being unlikable. She never gets you to root for her, but she’s amusing enough that you want to see what she does next.
The main conflict of the film comes in Ms. Halsey and Ms. Squirrell’s competition for the affection of Mr. Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), who despite being a substitute teacher is actually an heir to a huge French fashion corporation (what?).
This is when the film starts heading downhill – Timberlake has proven with his Lonely Island buddies that he’s got comedic chops, but he’s helpless when it comes to making his unevenly written character work. Some of his lines are funny, but most of them just don’t make sense.
This underlines the real failure of the film. The script was written by Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, whose only other feature credit is the surprisingly unfunny even boring Year One. They didn’t have anywhere to go but up with Bad Teacher, but just because they’ve improved with their second film doesn’t mean they’ve figured this thing out quite yet.
Eisenberg and Stupnitsky are lazy joke writers; their ability to give it a naughty sense of humor while keeping it out of potty humor territory is the only thing that keeps the jokes from seeming overtly immature. They’re plainly writing the characters for the joke, but any decent writer can tell you the jokes are written for the character.
When the script is in the hands of Jason Segel – Mr. Gettis, the P.E. teacher – the writing doesn’t seem as stale. But Segel is a genuinely funny actor with innate charisma that comes out all on its own; and the unfortunate truth is that no one else in this movie even approaches the ease he has with this material.
A better cast could have given better results, but when is that ever not the case? Bad Teacher never descends to becoming a bad comedy, but it only barely passes.