Though she lit up screens last year in the agreeably Hitchcockian action romp Knight and Day, Cameron Diaz has suffered a decade-long drought of roles stretching her rather underrated abilities as an actress, abilities demonstrated in her Golden Globe-nominated turns in Being John Malkovich, Vanilla Sky and Gangs of New York. While her work in Bad Teacher isn’t liable to earn her any nominations – owing to the solid if unaccomplished script rather than her chops – it’s a welcome return to the sassy, edgy roles that she should be better remembered for.
Diaz is, of course, the titular character, Elizabeth Halsey, a flat broke educator who quits her job only to find that her rich fiancée has dumped her, causing her to return, tail between her legs, to the wonderful world of shaping minds. However, her tendency towards excessive alcohol and drug consumption has never lent itself well to her craft, and now, poor and alone, it is worse than ever. A beacon of light arrives when cute, sensitive substitute teacher Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake) arrives on the scene, somehow giving Liz the misguided impression that she needs to raise the cash for breast implants to win him over. Meanwhile, rival teacher Amy Squirrell (Lucy Punch) also pursues Scott’s affection and the annual bonus for the teacher with the highest exam grades.
Though written by Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, two prominent scribes of NBC’s laudable The Office, Bad Teacher is neither laugh out loud hilarious nor astir in the situational workplace ennui that has made their TV work so successful. It is, however, a breath of fresh air amid the slew of pseudo-raunchy, 12A-rated, Apatow-for-Tweens comedies filling our screens; it has plenty of balls to go around, and ironically, most of this comes from Ms. Diaz herself.
Like she hasn’t been in quite some time, this is the look of an actress motivated and evidently compelled by the material. Whether she’s cursing out her pupils, drinking Vodka like a fish or taking a desperate bong hit, this sassy, unrepentant maneater persona suits Diaz like a glove, and while the years of safe career choices may have dulled us to her appeal somewhat, here she compensates with both a luminous performance and, thanks to the film’s car-wash scene, a reminder that, yes, she still has it.
Seeing Diaz dominate the screen holds far more appeal than any number of one-liners would, and though the film is rarely more than quite funny, Diaz’s turn elevates the game considerably, as does the work of her co-stars. British up-and-comer Lucy Punch is especially noteworthy as Liz’s prissy competitor Amy, milking her character’s zaniness and providing an adequate counterpoint for Liz’s dryer, more sardonic sense of humour. The Office star Phyllis Smith is amusingly awkward as Liz’s downtrodden colleague, while Justin Timberlake shines in a surprisingly multi-faceted role, and Jason Segel does well – essentially playing himself, admittedly – as the gym teacher incessantly pining after Liz.
Alongside a higher laugh quotient, what the film lacks is a little consistency; owing to some messy if still enjoyable scenes, things don’t always gel together. One child character is swiftly introduced with an arching backstory which is quickly dealt with for the sake of poignancy, yet it doesn’t feel true because the motions are so obviously rushed through. Also, the key romance – and no, not the one you’re thinking – arrives far too quickly, yet the punchline and the quality of the performances do in a decent measure compensate for the scripting faux pas.
Bad Teacher could have dared to push the 15-rating further, and it probably would have been funnier as a result, but on the back of a refreshingly irreverent turn from Cameron Diaz, the flaws are easy to forgive. It does more than enough to get a passing grade.
Bad Teacher is released this Friday but not until June 24th in the U.S.
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