A version of this review appeared in The Age, July 23, 2011.
These days, American TV comedies outdo the equivalent movies more often than not. The writers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupinsky are best-known for their work on the American version of The Office – and their script for Bad Teacher doesn't come close to the sophistication of that show at its best.
Still, the film has a terrific premise, and a star who's up to the challenge: Cameron Diaz looking dead-eyed, trashy and fabulously indolent as Elizabeth Halsey, by all odds the least dedicated staff member at John Adams Middle School in Chicago. Elizabeth is not just a bad teacher but an all-round Bad Person – lazy, selfish, conniving, rude, and capable of Sarah Palin levels of sanctimony when it suits her purpose.
When we first meet her, she's ready to leave the world of education behind, barely avoiding a collision with a school bus as she roars away in her red convertible. But when she's dumped by her opera-loving sugar daddy, she finds herself back where she started, in a seventh-grade classroom: her notion of hell.
Permanently hungover when not drunk or stoned, Elizabeth keeps actual teaching to a minimum, subjecting her students to an endless course of “inspirational” movies such as Stand and Deliver (1988). Such total lack of commitment demands a certain respect; the character loses some of her integrity once she drops her apathy and embarks on a series of elaborate schemes in hope of raising money for a boob job.
In the meantime, Elizabeth sets her sights on her bow-tie-wearing colleague Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake, looking very amused at himself) a mild-mannered heir to a fortune who nominates his favorite book as Eat, Pray, Love. Predictably, he resists Elizabeth's brash advances, while developing a crush on her rival, a goody-two-shoes teacher named Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch, chirruping and baring her teeth).
To put it kindly, Bad Teacher is a mixed bag. While Eisenberg and Stupinsky supply a sprinkling of amusingly sour jokes, there's something strained and cautious about their efforts to maintain an edgy-yet-acceptable level of political incorrectness. Elizabeth is allowed to express racism towards Jews and Asians, for example, but to show her mocking African-American kids would be going too far.
The director Jake Kasdan likewise keeps things on an even keel. The pace is almost too brisk: a couple of key plot points are skated over, and the classroom scenes don't build as they might. There are plenty of grotesque moments, but Kasdan doesn't inflect them with visceral disgust – or with the over-the-top flair we'd expect of a director like Danny DeVito, whose Roald Dahl adaptation Matilda (1996) featured a Bad Headmistress who could eat Elizabeth for breakfast.
Indeed, Kasdan seems tolerant of his anti-heroine even at her worst. She may not have a heart of gold, but her all-out cynicism provides a refreshing contrast to characters who are variously dorky (Scott), gullible (John Michael Higgins as the school principal), wishy-washy (Office co-star Phyllis Smith as Elizabeth's closest “friend”) and just plain irritating (Miss Squirrel).
Kasdan's restraint pays off when he comes to Elizabeth's inevitable but minor change of heart, conveyed by Diaz in a single, fleeting glance. Similarly, he gets a good performance from Jason Segal in the tricky role of a gym teacher smart enough to serve as an audience stand-in, yet feckless enough to see Elizabeth as a potential soulmate.
Like John Krasinski in The Office, Segal is something close to a human being in a world of cartoons; his decent traits aren't over-emphasised, but his attraction to Elizabeth – based on amusement as well as lust – lets us feel she might after all have something to give.