'Bad Teacher' barely earns passing grade

  • Cameron Diaz shakes up a middle school fundraiser as the "Bad Teacher."

    Cameron Diaz shakes up a middle school fundraiser as the "Bad Teacher."

  • Cameron Diaz throws away the book on class decorum as the "Bad Teacher."

    Cameron Diaz throws away the book on class decorum as the "Bad Teacher."

 
 
Posted6/23/2011 11:00 AM

Columbia Pictures screened "Bad Teacher" for the press Wednesday night after many regular newspaper deadlines, a sign the studio doesn't think the movie will be a winner with critics and the public. (We held the presses for our readers, naturally.)

"Bad Teacher" isn't all that bad. Not all that good, either.

 

It offers flourishes of funny stuff, a tamely sexy carwash sequence with Cameron Diaz in wet cutoffs, some rude and crude language, a little drug comedy, a few un-PC ethnic slurs and a sellout ending in which the title character undergoes an unbelievable change of personality unsupported by any life-changing event in the movie.

The movie is set in Illinois (the students even take a trip to see the Lincoln exhibit down in Springfield), and an Illinois state academic test booklet is apparently printed in Schaumburg.

Still, why isn't the R-rated "Bad Teacher" badder?

Billy Bob Thornton did such awful things in "Bad Santa" that they can't even be printed in a family newspaper.

Harvey Keitel committed such naughty acts as "The Bad Lieutenant" that Abel Ferrara's movie earned an NC-17 adults-only rating.

Jake Kasdan's tepid "Bad Teacher" could have amped up the badness factor and become the gleefully outrageous and subversive movie it thinks it is.

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But the edge is blunted. The punches are pulled. The dirtiness has been sanitized. This "Bad Teacher" wants to be "The Hangover," but feels like a PG-13-rated version -- with naughtier language.

We first meet Elizabeth Halsey (Diaz) as her rich fiance realizes she's just a gold digger and cuts her loose.

Forced to return to a teaching job she hates at John Adams Middle School (JAMS), Elizabeth continues to be rude to her peers, among them overweight Lynn (Phyllis Smith), overachiever Amy (Lucy Punch), out-of-shape PE instructor Russell Gettis (Jason Segel) and easily manipulated Principal Snur (John Michael Higgins).

One faculty member grabs her attention: Scott (Diaz's real-life ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake), a timid substitute teacher who happens to be an heir to a luxury watchmaking family.

The one-joke premise of "Bad Teacher" is that Elizabeth gets away with being a terrible instructor and nobody stops her. She shows her class a library of education-related movies: "Stand and Deliver," "Dangerous Minds" and others.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

She expresses utter contempt for her students. When one brings her home-baked cookies, Elizabeth spits them out. In front of the student.

All Elizabeth wants is a breast-enhancing procedure from a local surgeon (David Paymer), so she can land a rich husband and retire.

But it costs $10,000.

This puts Elizabeth on a campaign to raise the money, first by pilfering earnings from the aforementioned school-sponsored carwash (an issue never settled), then by trying to win $5,000 for teaching a class that places first in the state on a tough examination.

If only she could get her hands on a state answer key!

Diaz doesn't have much to work with as far as her character is written, although she's excellent at portraying self-centered manipulation in her prickly jousts with her chief competitor, Punch's Amy.

The screenplay to "Bad Teacher" comes from "The Office" writers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, and you can almost detect a TV-vibe to the characters here.

Neither writer will win any awards for fresh adjectives:

"Weed is awesome!" Elizabeth says.

"Awesome!" a student says.

"This is really awesome," Russell says. He also says, "This is awesome!"

"You guys have an awesome time!" Scott says.

"You're going to find awesome people!" Elizabeth says.

"Super awesome!" Amy says.

With lazy dialogue like this, "Bad Teacher" barely makes the grade.