Saturday, July 9, 2011

"Bad Teacher" is effectively mean-spirited, but comedically flat

Film Rating: C–

Bad Teacher isn’t necessarily a good comedy, but it may just be a wonderful practical joke.

I’m serious.  By the time the third act rolled around, I felt like looking over my shoulder to search for whoever was going to pop up and yell “Fooled You!” at the audience before loading the actual movie in the projector.  To say Bad Teacher is surreal would be an understatement.  It is a very mean comedy, one that asks the viewer to sympathize with terrible people while laughing at both good, heartfelt teachers and sweet, innocent kids.  That’s not even the weird part.  I’m totally game for mean humor – I loved Hangover II, for instance, because it was mean and nasty to the extreme, displaying an unflinching audacity that I found hilarious.  Bad Teacher certainly takes the right direction with the humor – it’s the detours that I found baffling.  Broad comedy is dangerous, and when a comedy becomes as broad as Teacher, many jokes are bound to fall flat.  Indeed, the crickets-to-chuckles ratio is an even fifty/fifty, and as broad as the jokes are, some of the characters are even more wildly inconsistent.  The same goes for the tone and the pacing, two crucial elements fumbled so dreadfully that even when the jokes connect, there’s no energy to back them up.  It’s an utterly flat comedy, one whose flaws are, in many ways, more amusing than any of the actual jokes.

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As the titular teacher Elizabeth Halsey, Cameron Diaz holds the movie together even as it desperately tries to fall apart at the seams.   Her work here almost justifies the price of admission, and while I don’t think she deserves any awards, her performance is revelatory in more than a few ways.  Most importantly, she’s funny – tremendously so, at times – and she doesn’t hold anything back while playing this appallingly awful human being.  Elizabeth has no redeeming qualities, the script never gives her a redemptive moment, and Diaz never tries to make the character likable.  I, for one, find that hilarious, and Diaz is so good at playing someone we love so much to hate that in a weird, warped way, Elizabeth is kind of endearing. 

And that’s about all the movie has going for it.  There’s no real ‘plot’ to speak of, just a collection of sequential vignettes about how horrible Elizabeth is.  Her primary goal is to land a rich man who will take care of her so she’ll never have to work again, and she believes earning enough money for plastic surgery will help her achieve this goal.  Every scene is centered around Elizabeth, but without any significant story or character arc, the pacing is choppy at best.  The filmmakers recognized they had one very funny character, and went no further than that, putting together a collection of jokes involving said character and calling it a ‘movie.’  Chopping it up into a series of five-minute internet videos – easier to digest than a feature-length film – would likely be more effective.

There are other characters, played by a handful of performers I really admire, who help keep the film afloat.  Justin Timberlake, so good in last year’s The Social Network, plays a ditzy and overly sincere teacher whose wealth and good looks attract Elizabeth, and he’s very funny even when the character isn’t.  Timberlake’s role is unmanageably broad and inconsistent, but he holds things together admirably, and his sense of comic timing is undeniable.  Jason Segel, one of my favorite comedians, seems very aware that he’s doing this movie for a paycheck.  Segel can phone-in a performance and still be funny, and not only does he do that, but also recognizes that he’s in an underachieving comedy, and smirks at the other performers from the background for trying so hard.  Phyllis Smith, aka Phyllis from The Office, is the only one who earns riotous laughter every time she appears on screen.

The only character that absolutely doesn’t work is rival teacher Amy Squirrel; her arc is reminiscent of Richard Dreyfus in What About Bob – she’s a good, talented person driven mad by the newcomer.  Actress Lucy Punch seems totally game for that kind of role, and she’s certainly funny at times, but the script never comes close to defining who Amy is; broader than broad, it’s hard to say anything Amy does is out-of-character when we’re never sure what Amy’s character is, and nearly every scene she appears in is unbearable (unless Segel is in the background, mindful of this fact and grinning wryly to cope with the pain). 

The film as a whole is as inconsistent as Amy.  It wants to be mean and edgy and raunchy, but the tone is low-key to a fault, and the lack of energy lends the film the air of a lackluster TV production.  Jake Kasdan’s direction is competently cinematic, but the visuals are always undermined by an abysmally bad musical score from Michael Andrews, one that might sound at home in a cancelled nineties sitcom.  Cameron Diaz tries her best, and I hope she finds more roles like this in the future, ones that exploit her surprisingly adept comic sensibilities.  She, along with much of the cast, elevate this material quite a bit, but when all is said and done, Bad Teacher, like Elizabeth herself, is flawed to the core.   

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