Saturday, June 25, 2011

Bad Teacher: Flunks out

Bad Teacher (2011) • View trailer for Bad Teacher
1.5 stars. Rating: R, for profanity, nudity, sexual candor and drug use
By Derrick Bang

Lest you’ve wondered recently, let me remove all doubt: America truly is the land of opportunity.

Nowhere else could Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg have been paid — and quite well, by the standards of us ordinary working stiffs — for their script to this dreadful excuse for a movie.
While showing support for the faculty band's performance at a local bar, the
bored Elizabeth (Cameron Diaz, center), present only because she's hot for one
of the musicians, rather cruelly encourages the timid Lynn (Phyllis Smith) to
pick up a guy across the room, as Russell (Jason Segel) expresses silent but
obvious disapproval.

Nowhere else could a major film studio — Columbia, fercryinoutloud! — have believed, even for a moment, that this misbegotten project was worth green-lighting. What are those people smoking down there?

Nowhere else could director Jake Kasdan have drawn an even larger salary for making absolutely no effort to cajole convincing performances from his cast members. Indeed, one gets the impression that Kasdan spent the entire production shoot much like this flick’s title character: eyes closed and totally zonked, having stayed up too late the previous evening, and now paying not the slightest bit of attention to what happens each day in front of the camera.

Really, it doesn’t look like he even tried. The actors here move stiffly and awkwardly from one scene to the next — most of which have no continuity — and deliver their lines flatly and without the slightest trace of emotional connection, while standing uncomfortably about, as if waiting for a school bus.

With few exceptions, their “performances” look and sound like cold line-readings. And since we’ve seen most of these people do much better work elsewhere, the blame falls squarely on Kasdan’s shoulders.

I probably shouldn’t be surprised, since Kasdan most recently brought us the 2007 train wreck, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. He’s yet another member of the Judd Apatow repertory company, having served his apprenticeship on television’s Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, followed by a reasonably respectable big-screen debut with 2002’s Orange County. But Kasdan never fulfilled those early suggestions of promise; if his next feature — 2006’s The TV Set — even achieved big-screen release, I never heard about it.

Being part of the Apatow crew, even a lesser part, means larding one’s films with requisite dollops of vulgarity and crude, boorish behavior. And profanity: plenty of profanity. But that style only works — which is to say, only becomes funny — when starting with a competent script that delivers characters whose behavior is somehow shaped or defined by their exaggerated impropriety.

Under no circumstances could Stupnitsky and Eisenberg’s random typing here be called a script, let alone competent.

Finally, and this should have been blindingly obvious, any potential comedy with the chutzpah to employ a title guaranteed to draw comparisons to 2003’s Bad Santa had better deliver on that association.

Bad Teacher doesn’t even come close. The premise and script aren’t nearly “bad” enough, and Cameron Diaz hasn’t a trace of the gleefully naughty attitude that Billy Bob Thornton brought to his jaw-droppingly disgusting behavior. Diaz merely postures and play-acts, her eyes and thoughts apparently on nothing more than each week’s salary (which may be to her credit, given the material she’s forced to work with).

Elizabeth Halsey (Diaz), a blatant gold-digger marking time as a junior high school teacher while waiting for her sugar daddy to pop the question, must stick with this loathed job after he dumps her. (No need to wonder how she got hired as a teacher in the first place; this script never addresses such real-world issues.) If she put only minimal effort into her previous term, now she returns to this Chicago middle school with the foulest of moods — and a mouth to match — and no willingness to try or become part of the school’s academic “family.”

Her one goal: to hang around long enough to earn enough money for the breast enhancements she believes will attract — and keep — the next sugar daddy.

The under-achieving Elizabeth immediately clashes with her across-the-hall neighbor, the over-achieving Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch). Amy believes that her “zany enthusiasm” and daft role-playing motivate her students, whereas Elizabeth — insisting that “movies are the new books” — snoozes through each period, having gotten drunk and/or stoned the previous night, while showing every school-themed flick to have emerged from Hollywood, from Stand and Deliver to Dangerous Minds.

For no discernable reason, gym coach Russell Gettis (Jason Segel) develops a fondness for Elizabeth, but she couldn’t care less; she has eyes only for new arrival Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), a bespectacled mouse who — in real life — would be eaten alive by any self-respecting class of junior high kids. Amy’s also hot for Scott, which further poisons her relationship with Elizabeth.

Come to think of it, Elizabeth’s interest in Scott doesn’t make sense; he’s certainly no sugar daddy, and he’s also too much of a sexually repressed dweeb for our voraciously carnal leading character. But what am I thinking? Stupnitsky and Eisenberg employ failure of continuity like badges of honor.

This mercifully short flick (92 minutes) stumbles through various set-pieces while Elizabeth slowly builds up her breast fund: a naughty car wash that rakes in the dough, and allows Diaz to parade about in short shorts and a tight shirt (and yes, for what it’s worth, she still looks mighty fine); a parent/teacher night where she solicits under-the-table funds in exchange for “personally tutoring” each of her students, whose names she never bothers to learn; and a Christmas dinner shared with the family of her geekiest student, a hapless nerd who keeps trying to impress the girl he adores with breathtakingly awful poetry.

Even by this film’s low standards, that last sequence is impressively ill-conceived.

Then Elizabeth learns that a fat bonus check will be given to the teacher whose students perform the best on the annual state achievement test. With visions of double-D-cups, she determines to win that award ... by any means possible.

No doubt Kasdan, Stupnitsky and Eisenberg viewed this as “plot tension.” But for that to be true, we’d first need a plot...

Happily, for those who stumble into this flick and are loathe to abandon their financial investment, Bad Teacher isn’t completely without merit. Phyllis Smith is genuinely amusing as meek fellow teacher Lynn Davies, who takes cautious uncertainty to new heights; she handles any suggestion with a nervous deluge of every possible response: “I guess so ... well, I don’t know ... OK, if you say so.”

Young Kaitlyn Dever, who just wrapped a sensational season on TV’s Justified, also stands out as teacher’s pet Sasha Abernathy, forever bringing Elizabeth tins of cookies. But we never get any closure with Sasha, just as we never see what happens after Lynn tokes up while briefly AWOL from chaperoning a school dance. One senses scenes left on the cutting-room floor during eleventh-hour efforts to improve this misbegotten turkey, but — if so — that truly was beating a dead horse (to mix my animal metaphors deplorably).

Finally, Punch’s Amy is an infinitely better character, in terms of artistic zest, than Diaz’s Elizabeth. They should have switched roles; the irrepressibly manic Punch would have come much closer to the unapologetically scruffy and trash-mouthed standard Thornton set in Bad Santa. Punch genuinely tries, from one scene to the next, making the most of her threadbare material. Diaz merely cashes checks.

Expectations for Bad Teacher obviously haven’t been high, considering a minimal publicity campaign and Columbia’s throw-it-to-the-lions release against Cars 2. But those of us who pay attention to small details knew that our worst fears were about to be confirmed, during an early preview screening, after seeing the chintzy logo displayed — before the film even began — by co-producing partner Mosaic Media Group.

If Mosaic wishes to be taken seriously — and if Bad Teacher is any indication, that’s probably not the case — they really must spend more money on an improved logo.

Meanwhile, viewers are much better off renting any of the vastly superior school-themed titles that Elizabeth shows her faceless, anonymous students each day.

No comments:

Post a Comment