Jake Kasdan emerged as a writer-directed with 1998’s Zero Effect, a wonderful and underseen comic mystery featuring career-highlight work from Bill Pullman and Ben Stiller. Since that movie’s financial underperformance, he seems to have been (understandably) concentrating more on getting work than expressing his particular voice. As such, he’s logged time as a quality-TV director-for-hire on short-lived gems like Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared; vented his frustrations with that TV business in the film The TV Set; made a smarter-than-average teen comedy with Orange County that nonetheless doesn’t match his television work in the same demographic; and gone broad and spoofy with Walk Hard. These projects all had merit, but none of them felt like his personal sensibility.
If Jake Kasdan cultists exist (and given Zero Effect, they must!), they may be looking to Bad Teacher, now on DVD, for a re-emergence of Kasdan’s voice, and, as such, may come out disappointed. The movie doesn’t feel personal; it’s a little like an Apatow production, given the presence of Kasdan (a long-time Apatow associate) behind the camera and Jason Segel in front of it; and a little like an opportunistic Bad Santa knockoff, sharing the same basic hook: a dissolute adult inexplicably scraping by in an inappropriately child-heavy profession.
Yet the movie isn’t quite either of those things. Apatow didn’t produce it, although the movies he did produce probably made it possible. It does nick a little from Bad Santa, but it’s not nearly as filthy or depraved (or as hilarious, but few movies are). This may incite further disappointment, as audiences and critics often seem to expect R-rated comedies to blaze new trails of raunch and transgression, not just cuss and spit. But Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) isn’t just a vehicle for debauchery like, say, the Hangover guys; as nasty and conniving as she can be, the movie gives her a personality and a point of view.
We first see Elizabeth all but fleeing her job as a middle-school English teacher; it becomes clear that teaching was a stop-gap solution for her (“summers off, no accountability”) until such time as she found a suitably loaded guy to marry. But after speeding out of the school parking lot with a cigarette in her mouth and a HERS license plate on her sports car, she arrives home to find out that her fiancée is on to her gold-digging, and the wedding is off. Disheartened, she returns to school that fall, setting her sights on wealthy new sub Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake) and, as such, the breast enhancement she’s sure will win him over, while rebuffing the advances of Russell (Jason Segel), the gym teacher.
From there, Bad Teacher takes on the kind of episodic full-school-year structure that’s usually better-suited to a season of television than a 90 minute feature. But if Bad Teacher feels a little like an extended TV pilot, it’s a pilot for a show I’d watch, and Kasdan makes the sketchiness snappy rather than choppy. His direction may not be drum-tight, but he knows how to frame sight gags, like Elizabeth’s “HERS” vanity plate reassigned to a junkier car, with subtle clarity. The screenplay comes from a pair of Office writers, so it has a welcome bit of deadpan dryness to go with the more obvious gags centering around Elizabeth’s hostility and eagerness to show movies in class.
The movie’s greater strength, though, is its performances; Kasdan makes expert use of his cast’s abilities. Diaz, with her gangly sexiness, has always been a physical performer, but untethered from likability, she uses that physicality even more aggressively, striking angular comic poses: curled up for a belligerent nap at her desk, strutting down the hallway avoiding eye contact with students, and whipping from coiled irritation to phony bubbliness when she needs to appear friendly and engaged.
The filmmakers don’t frame Elizabeth as stupid (though she says some ignorant things) so much as possessing a particular taste for booze, junk food (she dips a corn dog directly into a jar of mustard and snacks on a bucket of fried chicken), expensive shoes, and bitchery; Diaz plays her as a popular girl gone to seed. The movie pits her against Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch), a high-energy social studies teacher who works up her sunny can-do attitude into righteousness when threatened by Elizabeth’s obvious lack of professionalism, and their passive-aggressive dueling is very funny.
The men of the movie have less to do: Timberlake mostly gets to play dorky, slightly clueless sincerity with skill but not much dimension, while Segel pops up to show charming but, given Elizabeth’s continued rejection of him, perhaps inexplicable good humor. But unlike a lot of overqualified comedy ensembles, all of the bit players here—John Michael Higgins, Thomas Lennon, and especially Modern Family‘s Eric Stonestreet—get funny scenes.
Also unlike many comedies, the extended “unrated” cut of Bad Teacher is marginally better than the theatrical version (if not so different and, like so many of its brethren, not at all raunchier or more risqué). A handful of additional scenes clarify and strengthen thin subplots while still keeping the movie trim, under 100 minutes. A separate group of deleted scenes is funny, too, illustrating that Kasdan’s comedy, while not always sidesplitting, is punchy and consistent.
The DVD lacks a commentary from Kasdan (or anyone else), perhaps underlining the film’s status as less than a personal statement, and more of a studio-comedy job. But as we wait for another burst of originality like Zero Effect, Bad Teacher counts as a job well-done.