Friday, 17 June 2011

Bad Teacher (Jake Kasdan, 2011) Review

Laughing their way to the bank... the cast of Jake Kasdan's Bad Teacher (2011)

If you want to know the fundamental problem with Bad Teacher you need only look at its protagonist, Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz), a venal, foul-mouthed, narcissistic headcase who you'd move continents to avoid. Her maxim? Best foot forward as long as it's in somebody else's face. At no point did I like her. At no point did I root for her, despite the films best efforts to shoehorn us into the clichéd 'redemption' arc, wherein Elizabeth gains a heart and learns to love the schlubby gym teacher. In fact, those moments made me hate her even more. The film is sold as a comedy, but it's closer to a cinematic hate crime...

Bad Teacher is about seven years late to the Bad Santa (Zwigoff, 2003) cash-in party, and during that time screenwriters Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg (who have scribed Ghostbusters 3, god help us) have completely forgotten the core reason why that film worked. Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) was a mean-spirited and piggish character, and he hated the world, but he also hated himself. There was no misplaced sense that this grumpy alcoholic conman had a sense of self-worth or had the potential to do better, and the people around him provided light relief as they observed his descent into a darkly comic (and it has to be said, quite edgy) pit of self-destruction. It was funny not just because of how shockingly inappropriate his behavior was, but also because of his all-round hopelessness. Yet Kasdan and co. actually want us to like Elizabeth. She hates the world but loves herself, and sees in her reflection some greater substance and inner beauty which simply doesn't exist. She's a cruel personality vacuum who actually bullies people, and enjoys doing so. The lump of coal where her heart should be is not endearing, and how anybody involved in this desperately unfunny mess of a film thought it could be is frankly worrying.

The laugh count is firmly on zero, mainly because Elizabeth is such a detestable bitch throughout. The central gag is basically that this drunken, drug addled attention whore is allowed to be put in charge of a group of children, but because of how awful she is that gag never works. There are no jokes worked within that one either; the concept is all they have, and it runs out of steam early on. The only likable character in the movie is the perkily adorable Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch; just wonderful), but she reaches such spirited highs that you come to think of her as more of a cartoon than a person. Credit where credit is due though, as Punch is brilliant in the role and actually attempts to create a fully rounded character. Her performance has nuances and a sense of comic timing; it is likable, and we feel bad when Elizabeth hurts her. But she's overwritten to the Nth degree and when surrounded with the heightened scenarios of the 'narrative' she comes off as just too animated for her own good. It's a shame that this gem is lost amid so much shit.

The rest of the supporting cast, including Jason Segel (usual schtick), Justin Timberlake (phoning it in) and Phyllis Smith (one-note) do little to help matters either, treading a careful comedy line in order to allow Elizabeth's outrageousness center stage. Ironically, Bad Teacher would have been a better film without her. From concept to execution (the plot holes are rampaging) this is a stain on the world of comedy and most notably the CV of Jake Kasdan (son of Lawrence) who previously made the excellent Zero Effect (1998) and Orange County (2002). He's a talented filmmaker but here he's let the ball drop to all new lows. Maybe in 2004 we could have laughed this one off as the cash-in it is, but it's too late in the day to care now and the film just acts as further evidence of how deep into the gutter mainstream American comedy has sunk...


  1. Wow, I nearly went to a free screening of this, but I'm glad I avoided it.

  2. Good review. This looks irredeemably terrible from the trailer, now I know I'll skip it.