Directed by Jake Kasdan
Runtime: 92 min.
Bad Teacher has almost nothing to do with the decline of America’s education system or the plight of underperforming schoolteachers whose jobs are on the block. That’s too bad because the sentimentality stirred up around those crises by last year’s media promotion of Waiting for Superman (while overlooking the more insightful The Lottery) is ripe for ridicule. Yet, a closer look at Bad Teacher reveals other cultural calamities that may expose the root of the education problem anyway.
Conceived in the mold of 2004’s Bad Santa, this film transfers the bad behavior of Billy Bob Thornton’s misanthropic, alcoholic, sex-addicted lout to the character of Elizabeth Halsey, a self-involved golddigger teaching in the Illinois public school system. She’s made appealingly sassy by Cameron Diaz’s portrayal which gives Bad Teacher a likable protagonist, something Bad Santa lacked. Diaz’s presence has a fetching liveliness. When Elizabeth ignores her classroom full of bright shiny faces, her own self-regard is even sunnier: wearing sunglasses and slumped behind her desk (instead of instructing), she’s a picture of bored narcissism.
This antisocial willfulness can either be taken as a sign of rebellion (Lucy Punch’s do-gooder Ms. Squirrel nervously notes Elizabeth “skating by on that bare minimum thing”) or tell us who we are as a culture. Bad Teacher splits the difference. It’s torn between cynicism and satire, simultaneously mocking piety and indifference. It proves that the filmmakers haven’t figured out what irks or delights them about Elizabeth Halsey or where they stand on the public schools issue. (They clearly share some of the same liberal sentimentality against orthodox pedagogy that infected the obnoxious School of Rock.) Diaz’s provocative pose in the Bad Teacher poster condenses the larger problem: How can we tantalize sexual images of independence, wealth and celebrity in everyday pop culture while pretending to care about math and the sciences?
Two great lines distinguish Bad Teacher: A state testing official (Thomas Lennon) responds to Elizabeth’s devious allegation of bias by protesting, “I’m not racist, I voted for Obama.” It’s a risky and rare jab at the hypocrisy in our culture. Unfortunately, there’s no follow-through to shrewdly pinpoint the social ambivalence and political duality evident in the school board malfeasances we read about. That self-deluding hypocrisy is what’s under the surface of so much politically correct pop culture.
In the film’s second great line, when the principal (John Michael Higgins) questions classroom film screenings instead of opening a book, Elizabeth bluffs: “I think movies are the new books.” There’s strange truth in her BS. Pop media so overwhelms literature that we inhabit a boldly illiterate culture (also visually illiterate) that requires a wilder form of satire to attack. Director Jake Kasdan and screenwriters Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg I Love You Phillip Morris. Elizabeth’s use of “Stand and Deliver” and “Lean on Me” only goes halfway. Snarkily invoking the legacy of movie educators, Bad Teacher fails to point out how virtues like compassion and citizenship used to be taught in the humanities (and through movies as good as Blackboard Jungle and as patronizing as Dangerous Minds) but now are looked upon with contempt or suspicion. It’s worth noting that the recent art movies Marco Bellocchio’s Sorelle Mai and Peter Mullan’s Neds contain schoolhouse scenes that brilliantly dramatize and critique these issues. In Bad Teacher, Elizabeth’s brazenness simply teases society’s worst values—the self-promotion and materialism that the mainstream media regularly espouses.—unlike Glenn Ficarra and John Recqua, the writers of Bad Santa who went on to make the cunning, iconoclastic
As our reigning knockabout sexy comedienne, Diaz has the ability to be engagingly silly yet disarmingly sincere. She can lampoon Elizabeth’s venality whereas Thornton could only indulge boorishness. A better script and more sensitive direction would have allowed Elizabeth to bring insight into our misguided culture. Goldie Hawn would have played this role 20 years ago (and did in Wildcats, Private Benjamin and Overboard) but it would have been about a woman’s change of heart. Diaz represents a different set of comics values than Hawn. Now, when Elizabeth reveals her benighted goals of getting a breast enlargement and marrying a rich man, one wonders: Why is she bothering to teach when those values could get her her own reality-TV series? That’s the on-the-ground meaning of Obama’s education mantra “Race to the Top.”
Kasdan and company miss the opportunity to connect Elizabeth’s venality to the greed and materialism that her pop consumer students absorb daily. They get easy laughs from Elizabeth’s sneering at her co-workers and bitchy competition with Ms. Squirrel, following the Bad Santa template of disreputable skits. Refreshingly, Bad Teacher never turns pious as expected of dishonest Hollywood product. Instead of a change of heart, Elizabeth simply alters her options. She doesn’t go from greedy to sacrificial but becomes practical–scaling down her ambitions from landing a slumming substitute teacher and heir, Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake) to hooking up with a compatible B.O.E. grunt (Jason Segel). Not exactly a triumph, at least it’s a credible and accessible turn of fortune that recognizes not all teachers are altruistic. Focusing on selfishness in the context of the helping professions, Bad Teacher’s best scenes provide roughly teachable moments.