Arguably the greatest legacy of Bill Clinton’s time in the White House is that fellatio jokes entered the mainstream. It’s damn near impossible these days to find an American comedy that doesn’t include a sniggering blow-job reference in the first five minutes, and the new Cameron Diaz comedy “Bad Teacher” is no exception. Of course, such jokes have become like the canary-in-the-coal-mine of Hollywood comedies: Encounter one early on and you know it’s going to be a long two hours.
Taking its lead from Terry Zwigoff’s “Bad Santa,” “Bad Teacher” imagines another hopelessly flawed adult serving as the worst possible role model for the kids in her care. Diaz plays Elizabeth Halsey, a junior high school teacher who, as the tag-line puts it, doesn’t give an “F.” Oh, she’s bad: She drinks in class, she smokes weed, and her life goal is to raise the money to get the breast implants that will help her land a sugar-daddy husband and the nonworking lifestyle she aspires to.
She’d have had good luck at the Roppongi Hills Heartland bar back before 2008’s Lehman Shock, but these days, what’s a gold-digger to do? Elizabeth isn’t exactly happy to still be stuck in a classroom — her lesson plan consists of showing the kids movies while she sleeps off her hangover — but fortunately there’s a new teacher in town (Justin Timberlake), and he’s a hottie who’s also a trust-fund kid. The downside is that he’s a dweeby liberal who has his eye set on Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch), the overly enthusiastic, holier-than-thou teacher who hates everything Elizabeth stands for. There’s also a perfectly nice gym teacher (Jason Segel, “The Muppets”) who casually pursues Elizabeth, but she considers herself a cut above.
When she finds out that there’s a cash bonus for the class that performs best on a state-wide test, she smells boob-job success, and suddenly becomes motivated … to seduce the head of testing and pilfer an advance copy of the exam.
This should make for a good screwball comedy, but director Jake Kasdan probably couldn’t look at the word “screwball” without chuckling like Butt-Head. He manages to find a few sparks in the bitter rivalry between Elizabeth and Ms. Squirrel, but that’s about it, as the script relies on crude dialogue and little else. (Although the dry-hump scene between Timberlake and Diaz will leave most viewers cringing.) The difference between this and “There’s Something About Mary” — a film that showed Diaz does in fact have great comic timing — is that back then a comedy of this sort would be called “outrageous”; these days it’s pretty much par for the course.
About the only thing “Bad Teacher” proves is that Diaz still looks as hot as ever at age 40; check the car-wash scene that has her in hot pants sloshing all over the hood of a car in slow motion, shot like a parody of a Michael Bay film. There’s a bit of irony when, in another scene, Elizabeth fumes that “you have no idea how difficult it is to compete against these Barbie doll types,” considering how Diaz was once considered one of them. A bit more of this would have helped.
All in all, it’s a fairly similar scenario to Jason Reitman’s film “Young Adult” from earlier this year, but that film schools “Bad Teacher” nine ways to Sunday. Diablo Cody’s script was witty and well-observed, and Charlize Theron’s character was as pathetic and sympathetic as she was despicable. The disillusion surrounding her middle-age meltdown felt real and put an edge on her acting out, while Reitman also had a sense of the absurd that Kasdan clearly lacks.
In comparison, “Bad Teacher” feels like foul-mouthed comedy on autopilot with a dislikable character at its core, whose last-reel conversion to caring for others bears not a whit of believability. Elizabeth may not give an “F,” but this critic certainly does.