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Home / Articles / Entertainment / Screen /  Learning the wrong lessons
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Thursday, June 30,2011

Learning the wrong lessons

By Michael Phillips

 

An employee of the Chicago public school system, ha-cha seventh-grade educator Elizabeth, portrayed by Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher, blows most of her classroom time showing her students (whose names she never learns) movies such as Lean on Me, Stand and Deliver and Dangerous Minds while she nurses a hangover or longs for her next bong hit.

Dumped by her fiancé, this craven schemer has returned to the job she thought she’d left behind. But a darling substitute teacher with money (played by Justin Timberlake, highly amusing in his nerdiness) gives Elizabeth a clear goal. She must raise $10,000 for a boob job designed to bag the new guy, even if the likable gym teacher ( Jason Segel) presents a more simpatico match.

So goes director Jake Kasdan’s moderately funny chronicle of misbehavior, written by two alums of The Office, Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, and clearly influenced by Bad Santa. Bad Teacher offers considerable talent in its supporting ranks. Besides Timberlake and Segel, there’s Lucy Punch as Elizabeth’s rival, an aggressively chipper instructor by the name of Amy Squirrel, haunted by an unspecified breakdown in her recent past. Phyllis Smith of The Office mutters some bone-dry asides as Elizabeth’s teacher colleague, a doormat so thrilled to spend time with this glamorously trashed-out character that she doesn’t care how badly she’s being patronized.

This leaves Diaz, for whom this role presents a welcome break from the sunny SoCal emblems she often inhabits. She has her moments. At one point she comes up with a great, “what tha?” expression when Timberlake zooms up north of her lips and goes in for a chaste forehead kiss. But neither the script nor the performance ever quite gets around to making Elizabeth the kind of moral slob you love to hate. Diaz holds the screen, especially in motion, but rarely does she surprise you with a line reading, or her timing. Nor, for that matter, does director Kasdan (whose previous work includes TV’s Freaks and Geeks and the film Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story). His rhythms tend toward fits and starts.

On the other hand, at least Bad Teacher shows some nerve. It’s raunchy without constantly resorting to a game of “Can You Top This?” And it’s Diaz’s show, for better or worse, yet the strongest laughs are earned by Segel (he’s a prime reactor, though I wish he weren’t stuck doing quite so many B-grade reaction shots) and by Timberlake. Seduced, with purpose, by Elizabeth on a field trip, the gullible sub played by Timberlake has the film’s best single bit. It probably shouldn’t be detailed beyond mentioning that it involves two people, fully clothed, on a hotel bed. Timberlake is not afraid to make himself look like an idiot. He is, in fact, already the comic actor Diaz may yet become: a looker who knows how to use his looks to get away with murder.

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