With her cartoonishly long legs slung over the desk and that Joker smile stretched into a grimace, Cameron Diaz attempts to ape Billy Bob Thornton’s iconic Bad Santa performance as a horrific junior high school teacher with a desk-drawer full of weed and whiskey bottles.
What’s missing is the desperation, and also the wit.
Directed by Jake Kasdan (son of Raiders of the Lost Ark screenwriter Lawrence, and an obviously talented young man who helmed a handful of Freaks and Geeks epsiodes,) Bad Teacher puts Diaz front and center as an unapologetically shallow gold-digger biding her time at John Adams Middle School. (JAMS, for short.) Saving up for a boob job because she hopes to “compete with all these fucking Barbie dolls” for the sugar daddy of her dreams, Diaz’s cheerfully loathsome Elizabeth Halsey embezzles from the kids’ car wash fund, and generally coasts through school in a hungover stupor. She’s got little time for her students and even less time for social niceties.
A fun character, but what’s next? The screenplay, penned by Office writers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, doesn’t quite know what to do with her, sending Diaz fumbling all over Justin Timberlake’s do-gooder old-money newcomer, while Jason Segel’s all-knowing horndog gym teacher hangs in the background offering ad-libbed one liners that feel like they’re being beamed in from a much wittier movie.
Half-realized at best, Kasdan’s direction fumbles through a semester’s worth of blackout sketches with all the technical acuity of a Kevin Smith picture. It is a deeply shoddy looking effort, riddled with blank-wall backgrounds and weirdly short on extras. (Shouldn’t a middle school be full of kids?)
As she does in most roles, Diaz throws herself into Bad Teacher as if her life and career depended on it, but not necessarily in that order. She works overtime playing to the back rows, backing up similarly oversized performances by Timberlake, and the unfortunate British actress Lucy Punch, trying on a Sarah Palin accent as an over-achieving do-gooder a bit too tightly wound for comfort.
Despite a game cast, Bad Teacher tries too hard, and seems too inanely pleased with its own not-very dirty jokes. Backing into sentimentality, there’s nothing dangerous or transgressive going on here. Waiting For Superman had more laughs.