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By Jim Rohner · June 27, 2011
In his 2010 documentary, Waiting for Superman, Davis Guggenheim attempted to paint a clear picture of the plethora of problems afflicting the American education system. On top of inflexible teachers unions, a convoluted system of accountability and lack of funding, one of the points touched upon in the doc was the hiring and seeming impossibility in getting rid of incompetent teachers that have achieved tenure. Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz), the so-called protagonist of Jake Kasdan's Bad Teacher, seems to be a poster child with this specific kink in the education hose. With her blatant disregard for her students, propensity for sleeping through class while hungover and lack of even the subtlest hint of affinity or proficiency at teaching, Elizabeth would be the quintessential nightmare for both students and teachers alike. And yet, we're supposed to root for her.
Why? Unless you're also a superficial female with breast implants as the tip of the iceberg life goal for yourself, I'm not really sure I can answer that question. You see, Elizabeth doesn't care about teaching. She doesn't care about the students, she doesn't care about her fellow teachers, she doesn't care about the future that our kids supposedly "are" – she is, after all, the titular “bad teacher.” The only reason she's teaching in the first place is because that's the occupation through which she was coasting before her sugar daddy dumped her. You'd think that if she needed to pass the time while waiting for her proverbial meal ticket to come through, she'd have picked a job requiring less schooling, dedication and charge than teaching, but hey – suspension of disbelief, right?
Anyway, she returns to her position of sculptor of young minds reluctantly after having been given the boot, but finds a new focus of her gold-digging aspirations in new substitute Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), heir to a luxury watchmaker's fortune and naive all-around good guy still recovering from a broken heart. She faces stiff competition, however, from fellow teacher Amy Squirrel (Ellie Kemper, er…Lucy Punch, that is), whose obnoxiously upbeat attitude and passion for her students make her both a better human being and better match for Scott than Elizabeth. Despite, or perhaps, because, of being a total bitch with no discernible redeemable characteristics, Elizabeth deduces that the only way for her to win over Scott is to get breast implants. Yes, you read that right – the broke woman who wants to marry rich decides the best way to achieve her goal is to raise almost $10,000 for her to throw away on a surgery to impress a man who previously had never overtly expressed an affinity for large breasts. How's that for logic?
For an R-rated comedy, Bad Teacher shows as much brains as its uncaring protagonist and the students who learn nothing from her. Hoping, perhaps, to invoke sympathies from the crowds who enjoyed Bad Santa, Jake Kasdan's attempt at an installment in the Bad Occupation That Works Closely With Children series of films tries to derive laughs from placing foul language and bad behavior in close proximity to youngsters, but Kasdan and screenwriters Gene Stupnitsky & Lee Eisenberg – who are batting 0 for 2 between this and Year One – play the crudeness so tamely that all dark comedy and subsequent big laughs are lost.
Not helping the film's cause is Cameron Diaz who's expected to believably convey the delicate balance between an in your face crassness that belies some type of forte or empathetic trait. Even if Diaz was able to convey apathy believably (she doesn't) there's still the issue that Stupnitsky & Eisenberg have written Elizabeth as a complete void of a human being. Why should we care at all if she wins over Scott or not and why on earth would any man, especially the healthily cynical and almost accidentally charming Russell Gettis (Jason Segel), be drawn to her? It makes sense why a woman with even a sliver of a soul would be drawn to the endearingly self-deprecating gym teacher, but it's actually unfair for us to believe he'd be attracted to a woman who's only been able to achieve success through cheating and deception.
Kasdan (Walk Hard) and Stupnitsky & Eisenberg ("The Office") are more than capable of creating funny work and coming off box office duds as all three have (the aforementioned Walk Hard and Year One) I suppose it's understandable they'd want to play things a little safe to appeal to a broader audience. In the process though, they've fallen victim to Jay Leno Syndrome, in which by trying to appeal to everyone, they've appealed to no one.