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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Bad Teacher

Jake Kasdan’s Bad Teacher squanders a rather strong collection of comedic talent, producing a middling, uneven final product with no real point of view or coherent vision.

Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz, who is easily ten years too old to be playing a second-year teacher) is just going through the motions at John Adams Middle School until a breakup from her rich fiancĂ© forces her to face the prospect of teaching becoming a long-term career. When she meets the rich new substitute teacher (Justin Timberlake), her dreams of a life of ease are rekindled. If only she could afford the breast implants that would be sure to catch his attention. She competes for Timberlake’s attention with the improbably named Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch), a dedicated but overly cheery teacher. Jason Segel’s gym teacher suffers from an inexplicably sturdy attraction to Elizabeth, but mostly observes the action from a distance, waiting for her to go through enough trouble and tribulation to make winding up with him seem less far-fetched as a plot device.

Along the way a bunch of other talented performers pop up here and there, usually to spout off a few uninspired cracks and retreat to the sidelines. Phyllis Smith, aka Phyllis from The Office, is Elizabeth’s meek confidant, Modern Family’s Eric Stonestreet plays Elizabeth’s slob of a roommate, Reno 911’s Thomas Lennon is a state education official, and David Paymer is a plastic surgeon. John Michael Higgins, Dave (Gruber) Allen, and Molly Shannon also appear, although Higgins and Shannon do not share the screen at any point, denying audiences the Kath & Kim reunion so many have been clamoring for.

The movie is oddly non-committal with regards to Elizabeth’s behavior. It isn’t even really sure whether it wants you to root for her to succeed or not, even as her misdeeds escalate from the merely irresponsible (neglecting her students and letting them watch movies all day) to the probably felonious (she drugs Thomas Lennon’s character, steals the state exam so her test scores will earn a bonus, then intimidates Lennon out of testifying against her.)

Justin Timberlake is a breezily charismatic figure in such venues as SNL, but here his talents are misappropriated. He is game and enthusiastic in his meager, unpromising role, but he fails to disappear into it. Instead he gives off the distinct impression of someone very cool having a lark at playing a nerd. It’s distracting, and shows that Timberlake has a ways to go before he can truly call himself an actor.

In fact, Timberlake and Segel are wrongly billed as the second and third leads of Bad Teacher. They may be bigger draws, but the real star among the supporting players is Lucy Punch as Ms. Squirrel. Bad Teacher is really a movie about their rivalry than anything else, and Punch is very winning as the grating, cloying and cheerful Ms. Squirrel.

As a movie, Bad Teacher seems to exist solely in support of its title. Someone had an idea to make a movie about a bad teacher, and this is the best they could do with such a limited premise. They did their best to smut it up to distract the audience, but a lack of killer punchlines and a lot of narrative confusion will out.

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