REVIEW: Cameron Diaz Slinks to the Head of the Class in Bad Teacher
Director Jake Kasdan (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, The TV Set) has hit his stride here. Bad Teacher marks the sweet spot between affability and disreputability. At one point the camera peers over Halsey's shoulder as she grades student papers. Her red-pen scrawls are howls of exasperation: "Stupid!," "Stupider!" and, the pièce de résistance, "Jesus Christ!" Forget trying to encourage her young spudlings; the best she can do is save them from being insufferable idiots.
The problem with Bad Teacher is that Kasdan doesn't always know when to stop with the crudeness. When we see Halsey at that car wash, her butt twitching cartoonishly in the air, it's enough that a cop passing by in a squad car is so distracted he sideswipes another vehicle; we don't need to see a junior-high kid's boner sproinging against his shorts, but Kasdan shows it to us anyway. Even rude humor can show a degree of subtlety and grace; that's a skill Kasdan hasn't fully mastered here.
But Kasdan is extremely clear about the movie's satirical stripes, and he and Diaz are completely in tune. I've often heard people complain about Diaz, claiming she's an empty-headed no-talent. That could be jealousy -- she's far better-looking than most of us mere mortals, although I think of her less as a raving beauty than as a great madcap presence. Everything about Diaz is an exaggeration: Her smile is so wide and sunny it could have been designed by the Mattel marketing department, circa 1972. Her legs are almost freakishly long, and they can be as graceful or as clumsy as circus-stilts, depending on what's called for in a scene. Diaz's great gift is that she's up for anything, and unlike so many actresses hovering around the age-40 mark, she radiates screwball confidence rather than desperation. In Bad Teacher, when Halsey is questioned about the fact that she's done nothing but play movies for her students (all of them clichéd classroom stuff like Stand and Deliver and Dangerous Minds), she defends herself with concise, self-righteous rigorousness: "In a lot of ways, I think that movies are the new books." The horror of the moment, and what makes it so funny, is that her brash sense of authority is so convincing.
For the most part, the movie's writers, Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, have hit the groove just right. (And may I just say that Preston Sturges himself couldn't have come up with a better name for a comedy writer than "Stupnitsky"?) And the actors warm to the material's outright insolence. As anybody who's watched his guest stints on Saturday Night Live knows, Timberlake is a natural clown and a cutup, and he breezes through Bad Teacher like a naughty, bespectacled imp. (His chemistry with Diaz, his ex-girlfriend, is the teasing, cajoling kind.) Segel is more charming here than ever before, and his Russell makes a great foil for Halsey: He calls her on her baloney, but it delights him, too -- he sees right through her manipulativeness to the smarts beneath.
Bad Teacher may be too obvious in places, but it also has its share of casually observed moments and absurd little touches: The fact, for instance, that the faculty bigwig (played by John Michael Higgins) goes by the name of Principal Snur. Or the way Kasdan's camera cuts, not once but twice, to a glazed-looking kid who personifies the phrase "the lights are on but nobody's home."
And then there's Diaz's Halsey, wriggling her ass hither and thither, using her sex to get what she wants. How dare she? The greatest achievement of Bad Teacher is that in the end it grants Halsey only a stingy serving of redemption. She's more likable at the end than she was in the beginning, but she refuses to ingratiate herself, to slip into the mold of what a likable character should be. Women are perhaps more inclined than men are to worry about what others think of them, but Elizabeth Halsey can't be bothered. She gets too hungry for dinner at eight; she loves the theater, but doesn't come late. And you know what they say about those kinds of girls.
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