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Bad Teacher

Director: Jake Kasdan
Cast: Cameron Diaz, Justin Timberlake, Lucy Punch, John Michael Higgins, Jason Segel, Phyllis Smith

(Columbia Pictures; US theatrical: 24 Jun 2011 (General release); UK theatrical: 17 Jun 2011 (General release); 2011)

Adios, Bitches

When Bad Teacher begins, the titular character, Elizabeth (Cameron Diaz), has just quit teaching. Or so she thinks. After a year at the John Adams Middle School, she’s leaving in order to assume the position she believes she deserves: she’s marrying a rich guy. She wears a smashing yellow dress and smiles as her colleagues wish her well at an end of term party. It’s clear she has no use for them: in mere seconds, she’s in her cute red Mercedes, sucking on a cigarette and waving as she zooms away: “Adios, bitches!” 

It’s only minutes later, however, that Elizabeth learns her life is not going the way she’s planned, and that her blander-than-bland fiancé, Mark (Nat Faxon), and his sniffy mother are dumping her. It’s Elizabeth’s fault, of course, but she’s an unrepentant gold-digger. And so she needs is another route to the same end she imagined before, and she comes up with it tout suite: she’ll get new big tits. She only needs about $10,000, she reasons, and so she returns to work at JAMS.

More precisely, she returns to a classroom, where she sits at her desk and plays DVDs for her seventh graders to watch, classic educational films, like Stand and Deliver and Lean on Me or the one where Michelle Pfeiffer’s high school students all look like they’re 40. When the principal (John Michel Higgins) wonders what she’s up to, Elizabeth smiles and says, like she’s had a great insight, “In a lot of ways, I think movies are the new books.” He lets it go.

This is the central, repeated joke of Bad Teacher: Elizabeth is less bad than misdirected, and besides, she’s smarter than everyone around her, which makes her relatively appealing. Much like her model-precursor in Bad Santa, she makes fun of fools like you might, if you had her cruel nerve or willful ignorance. And like Willie Stokes, Elizabeth has easy targets: you see why she’s annoyed by her completely stupid across-the-hall-mate, Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch), bored by the ever-pained wallflower Lynn (Phyllis Smith) or cynical about the manchildren who surround her. While she’s waiting for the new bosoms, she flirts with new marriageable material, a substitute teacher and heir to some fortune named Scott (Justin Timberlake). But you know it’s only a matter of time before she comes to her senses and likes the right guy, Russell (Jason Segel). You know he’s the right guy because, even though he’s just a gym teacher, he’s smart too.

It’s less clear why Russell sets his sights on Elizabeth. As long as she’s determined to hook up with the idiot Scott (“I’m pro-choice,” he says, “On everything except abortion!”), Russell observes and waits, asserting that no matter how many times she rejects him, “I’m like the Terminator, I’m gonna keep coming for you.” Yes, Russell is a plot device, a way to remind you that Elizabeth is a worthy girl, despite all her naughty behavior.

That behavior comprises most of the movie’s comedy. When she’s not titillating colleagues by showing cleavage and butt cheeks (see: the car wash scene), she’s resenting the hell out of her students. In the classroom, she’s incompetent, impatient, and generally pissed off, not unlike Jack Black at the start of School of Rock. This alarms pert Sasha (Kaitlyn Dever), and appreciated by Chase (Kathryn Newton), a popular blond who has better things to do than read a book. As Chase makes extra-clear the allusive point here (announcing to Elizabeth, “You rock!”), you might be feeling fatigued. Has this movie got any new ideas to share? 

Not really. It does take a jab at teaching-for-the-test, when Elizabeth comes up with the obvious shortcut (stealing the test key) and so impresses her witless colleagues with her awesome skills, while also pleasing her students’ equally witless parents. As the kids’ part in this scheme occurs off screen, you never know how much they know, but they’re only relevant as they mirror Elizabeth anyway, each a mini-her in a different way.

Eventually even Elizabeth has to see this. When she sees Chase abusing the abject affections of a nerdy boy, Garrett (Matthew J. Evans), Elizabeth lets him know straight-up that he has no chance with the “hot girl,” and that he should come up with another goal, to be achieved later in his life (“College,” she suggests, “That’s your window”). Why, Garrett wonders. “Because you’re sensitive,” Elizabeth observes, “You have a rich inner life,” and Chase, well, “She’s superficial, and her priorities are all fucked up.” It’s such an obvious self-description that Elizabeth can’t miss it, and she cringes for half a second.

It’s long enough for you to feel assured that Elizabeth has learned a lesson of sorts. And as you come at last to the movie’s gooey center, you’re also reminded that this summer’s ostensible new movie idea—girls as alternating objects-subjects of raunchy comedies—is less than new. And you hope that today’s Chases and Sashas will figure this out soon.


Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.

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