Grading on a Different Curve
It doesn’t descend — ascend? — to the levels of so-evil-it’s-genius of Bad Santa, which it clearly hopes to invoke with its title alone, but Bad Teacher is a refreshing breath of just-so-wrongness in today’s movie milieu. How’s that? The grossout comedy genre is all about piling degradation onto supposedly sympathetic protagonists, inviting us to laugh at those characters… until the sharp about-turn that invariably occurs in the third act, when suddenly the tone turns sappy and sentimental and we are expected to now care about the fates of the characters we’ve been ridiculing.
The small wonder of Bad Teacher is that director Jake Kasdan never invites us to feel sorry for Cameron Diaz’s unrepentantly terrible educator: on a good day, she sleeps through class and berates her students; on a bad day… well, no spoilers. She’s a hilariously awful person, and we can maintain our enjoyment of finding her hilarious even though she’s awful precisely because we also are not expected to see her — or her hapless students — as realistic. Of course it would be straight-up terrible, and not funny at all, if this were a real school and a real teacher and real students: dear God, our educational system is disaster enough! But Bad Teacher is a live action cartoon. You know, deliberately so, unlike so many other movies that end up accidentally that way.
So there never comes that squicky feeling of discomfort — as in, Wait, are we supposed to be laughing, or are we supposed to be feeling bad? — as we chortle at the own-worst-enemy antics of Diaz’s (The Green Hornet, Knight and Day) Elizabeth Halsey. She wants stupid, shallow things — a boob job so that she can snag old-money new teacher Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake [The Social Network, The Love Guru], having fun making fun of himself) as her sugar daddy — and she does stupid, shallow things along the way to achieving her stupid, shallow dreams. But this isn’t a nonstop orgy of raunch and grossout, either, as is typically required of that genre (though there are a few yucky bits that are quite funny because they arise from the idiocies of the characters, as in the one goofy sex scene between Diaz and Timberlake, or because they arise from characters attempting to avoid the sort of humiliation movies like this usually dump on them forcefully). But the humor here comes from the slyer, overarching joke that this is not, in fact, an attempt to outgross the grossouts — anyone expecting an Apatow-esque barrage of disgustingness will be disappointed — but is instead a parody of romantic comedies.
The most pointed of the rom-com sendup humor is, perhaps, that Halsey’s stupid-shallow schemes don’t quite backfire on her in the way that a more simplistic version of this tale would have resorted to, as a way of humiliating her. Bad Teacher isn’t about allowing us to enjoy watching her be humiliated — nor is it about watching the other characters, including Lucy Punch’s (Take Me Home Tonight, A Little Bit of Heaven) annoying chipper teacher and Jason Segel’s (Gulliver’s Travels, Despicable Me) smitten PE instructor, being treated the same way — it’s about allowing us to see how stupid and shallow the traditional rom-com is. That she wins certain aspects of what she wants mimics the way rom-coms work… in a crude, barbed way that holds up the traditional rom-com itself for ridicule (which is a good thing indeed). Instead of asking us to see the lovey-dovey and the soft-focus, sigh-inducing romance in a woman who has nothing in her life but chasing down the man of her dreams, we get instead the cold harsh reality of the unromantic gameplaying, and how (no spoilers!) it succeeds in certain ways for her. The joke is on the audience, too: For if we see her as risible, shouldn’t we see most rom-com heroines the same way?
Screenwriters Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg previosly failed miserably with the desperately unfunny “comedy” Year One, but their Bad Teacher script is an unexpectedly smart pleasure. The sneaky success of the film is, however, mostly down to Kasdan, who also made the brilliant Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. He is rare among today’s American filmmakers in being able to maintain a consistent comedic tone of not-so-dumb crassness. A big gold star and extra cookies at snack time for him.