Friday, June 24, 2011

Bad Teacher: D for Dismal

Bad Teacher, the new comedy starring Cameron Diaz as a scheming teacher, is the latest mediocre example of what passes for humour in American movies today. Whether they’re atrocious films like Get Him to the Greek and Grown-Ups, bad ones like The Hangover or mediocre movies like Date Night, that waste superior talents (Tina Fey, Steve Carrell), genuinely funny comedies are in short supply. That may explain why relatively minor movies like Midnight in Paris and Bridesmaids which at least possess a modicum of wit and style are getting such acclaim. Compared to the usual comedic tripe on our movie screens, they can't help but come across as veritable comic masterpieces. The only redeeming aspect of Bad Teacher is that this one didn’t seem to please the audience much, either, at the promotional screening I attended. Maybe, despite their generally setting a low bar for what makes them laugh, even filmgoers are starting to run out of patience with desperately unfunny, contemptuous films like Bad Teacher. Let’s hope so because this one deserves a failing grade at the box office.

The title of Bad Teacher is no doubt meant to echo Bad Santa (2003), Terry Zwigoff’s brilliant, transgressive assault on Christmas with Billy Bob Thornton as a drunken Santa who cases the department stores he works at in a bid to rob them after hours. But this new R-rated comedy isn’t especially gutsy, raunchy or all that smart, either. And unlike Bad Santa, which never softened Thornton’s disreputable character even when he (sort of) befriended an asocial kid who believed Santa was real, Bad Teacher wants to let filmgoers leave happy, so Diaz’s ‘nasty’ Elizabeth Halsey turns out not to be so bad, after all. What a surprise.

Justin Timberlake and Cameron Diaz
I like Cameron Diaz. She's a real talent who stood out in last summer's forgettable Knight and Day, and who, of course, shone in the Farrelly Brothers’ There's Something About Mary (1998), one of the few great (R rated) comedies, along with Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s Team America: World Police (2004) and Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat (2006) that Hollywood has given us in recent years. Her role as the sweet and sexy Mary showcased her savvy comedic talents to perfection. But in Bad Teacher, she – along with virtually the whole cast – is saddled with a one-note character, an ostensibly ‘bad’ girl who concocts numerous shady, unethical schemes to acquire the $10,000 she desperately needs to get a boob job so she can land a rich husband. The last thing she wants to do is teach her pupils anything at all, much less show any concern for their dreams and aspirations.

That’s a good starting point, functioning as a needed remedy to all those (mostly) false inspirational educator tropes that have prevailed in the movies and on television for decades. Halsey shows some of those movies, such as Lean on Me, Stand and Deliver and Dangerous Minds, to her wards so she can avoid interacting with them or doing her job while she recovers from her hangovers. But it soon becomes apparent that the film, shallowly written by Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky and ineptly directed by Jake Kasdan (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Orange County), doesn’t have much on its mind beyond some cheap laughs. It’s content to depict Halsey’s fellow teachers and the students at her school without any depth, preferring to cruelly lambaste them for being overweight, naïve, silly, keeners, victims, or just plain nerds. The picture suggests that they deserve whatever they get when Halsey dupes them, mocks them or simply ignores them. And its dialogue generally amounts to a series of lame one liners and some mildly daring sexual references. Oh, there’s a nominal storyline as Halsey rebuffs the attention of the school’s gym teacher Russell Gettis (Jason Segel, of TV’s How I Met Your Mother), while trying to seduce Scott Delacorte (a wan Justin Timberlake), the awkward new substitute teacher who happens to come from money. Meanwhile her chief rival, Amy Squirrell (Lucy Punch), as in Squirrelly – subtlety is not this movie’s strong suit – is determined to get the goods on Elizabeth and make sure she gets and keeps Scott all to herself. That’s pretty much it for plot, but the whole affair is delivered with so much mugging, overwrought slapstick and mean shtick that this 92-minute movie felt so much longer.

Lucy  Punch
The only good performance in Bad Teacher – and it’s genuine enough that it seems to come from another, better movie – is that of Segel, who tones it down to essay a slightly rebellious, somewhat cynical but also caring teacher. He's reminiscent of a favourite one you might have had in high school. I’ll also toss a bone to Lucy Punch, who, despite being stuck with a less-than-inspired role, manages to display a bit of sharp comic timing when Squirrell's true persona – she’s something of a whack-a-doodle – begins to break through her perky, upbeat exterior. Since her scene-stealing work in two undistinguished films last year, as the jaded British prostitute in Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and Steve Carrell’s obsessed American stalker in Dinner for Schmucks, the remake of the French film Le diner de cons, the English actress seems set to join that small pantheon of  highly skilled character actors (Oliver Platt, Tony Shalhoub, and David Paymer), whose name in the credits always piques interest. Paymer, in fact, pops up in just one scene in Bad Teacher, wasted as the plastic surgeon who is to do Halsey's breasts. Eric Stonestreet, so good as the excitable Cam in TV’s superior Modern Family, is also underused as Halsey’s slightly thuggish but mostly oblivious roommate.

I do find it illuminating that Halsey didn’t show her students Alexander Payne’s Election (1999), a very fine movie concerning teachers and students. Perhaps that would have reminded audiences that the subject matter of education and its practitioners can result in clever, nuanced and complex portraits of a rite of passage that we all experience in our lives. Bad Teacher, by contrast, is the equivalent of detention: a punishment that can’t end quickly enough.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute. On Tuesday June 28, he concludes a three week lecture series on Key Filmmakers of Our Time, examining the career of French director Claire Denis. The lecture takes place from 10-11:30 am at the Bernard Betel Centre (1003 Steeles Avenue West).

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