Monday, November 21, 2011
Director: Jake Kasdan
Starring: Cameron Diaz, Justin Timberlake, Jason Segel, Lucy Punch, Phyllis Smith, John Michael
Higgins, Eric Stonestreet, Thomas Lennon
Running Time: 92 min.
★★ (out of ★★★★)
If Bad Santa took place in a classroom and was unfunny it would be called Bad Teacher. It goes without saying Cameron Diaz is no Billy Bob Thornton but after watching this I'm starting to wonder if that would have even helped. While her performance as disgusting, repulsive middle school teacher Elizabeth Halsey isn't anything to write home about, she can't shoulder too much of the blame. The film refuses to fully commit, merely going through the motions of a premise that should be smart and edgy, but instead becomes boringly repetitive. It's okay to have a depraved female protagonist carrying a comedy, but you better make her funny. And if she isn't, you better not try to redeem her. That's the worst offense right there.
After being dumped by her rich fiance, gold digger Elizabeth is forced to resume her teaching job at J.A.M.S. (John Adams Middle School) with the hope of earning enough for a boob job. Classes consist of her showing movies, smoking pot, cussing at students, napping and trying to get her claws into new, but somewhat goofy substitute teacher Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake). Appalled do-gooder Miss Squirrel (Lucy Punch) teaches across the hall while gym teacher Russell Gettis (Jason Segel) is clearly smitten with Elizabeth, but has no shot. Sweet, naive faculty member Lynn (Phyllis Smith) seems thrilled someone's hanging out with her. Principal Wally Snur (John Michael Higgins) has a chronic dolphin fetish and is completely clueless as to anything that's happening.
The trailer for this (which oddly seemed to feature scenes not even present in the final cut) promises something that doesn't quite materialize. It promises Bad Santa. It delivers Bad Santa Lite. This isn't the the first time commercials made a crude comedy look edgier than it is but that doesn't make it any less disappointing that it's so by the numbers. Part of me wants to commend Diaz for diving into a project that deviates from your conventional female driven rom-com but the truth is this doesn't really differ from that at all. It's the same blueprint, just a little meaner. The character's motivations are so shallow and pointless, her schemes so unimaginative, that after a while I just lost energy rooting for a comeuppance that isn't in the cards. Though it's likely Lucy Punch's screechy Ms. Squirrel caused me to lose energy way before that.
The movie's saving grace are the other supporting players, especially a hilariously geeky Justin Timberlake, whose musical talents (and opinions on slavery and sharks) are put to good use. He's just as funny here as on SNL and supplies the few laughs there are. Jason Segel's role as Elizabeth's suitor is immensely underwritten and unrealized but at least he's good, milking it for all he can with limited screen time. They deserve better than this. So does the usually charismatic Diaz, even if she seems to be scraping the bottom of a barrel with her choices lately. You can probably count on one hand the number of actresses capable of creating laughs and rising above material like this (only Tina Fey, Ana Faris and Kristen Wiig come to mind) so she doesn't exactly need to hide her head in shame. The director, Jake Kasdan (Orange County, Walk Hard), has made some quality comedies in the past but Bad Teacher just feels thrown together and pedestrian. There are a number of nods to inspiring teacher movies like Stand and Deliver and Dangerous Minds, which only serve as a reminder that my time may have actually been better spent watching one of those preachy educational dramas. When those fail they're just painlessly cheesy. But when comedies do, it can be painful.