Saturday, September 10, 2011

Bad Teacher (Jake Kasdan)

There's something about Lizzie (Cameron Diaz) in Bad Teacher

Not bad enough

Jake Kasdan's Bad Teacher is forbidden fruit for teachers. It's their fantasy of what they'd like to do with (or to) their beloved students if they ever got the chance, if either parent or principal weren't breathing so hard down their necks. It's what we'd all like to do, if we dared, if we had the balls. The eponymous character at first glance is a refreshingly rude blast of flatulence from an odorless, flavorless summer-season lineup (I mean--Cars 2? Transformers 3? Harry Potter 7?).

Basically Elizabeth (the forever game Cameron Diaz) is an unabashed gold digger who sullenly returns to the teaching job she thought she had left forever (her fiancee's mother stepped in between them). The understandably frustrated young woman can barely muster enough interest in entertaining her students, much less educating them--for the first few weeks she shows the class a gaggle of clich├ęd education dramas (Dangerous Minds (1995), Stand and Deliver (1988)--which I liked, for the record) while slouched behind desk and a pair of dark shades, sleeping off a hangover. Her mind is focused on more important things--like rich young volunteer teacher Scott (the forever creepy Justin Timberlake) and the $10,000 boob job she's always dreamt of having.

Can't say the teacher doesn't know what she wants, or how to go about acquiring the object of her desire. Her ears perk up when she hears of a $5 thousand-plus dollar bonus to any teacher able to motivate her class to produce the highest state test scores--easily half the cost of her proposed new chest. The next day she has a whole new program set up, with her poor students the unwitting cadets in an educational boot camp of her own devising.

It's a great concept--not so much an unlikeable character as a character who doesn't give a fuck if you like her or not (that's what makes her interesting). Not so much a heroine as an anti-heroine, who has you following her not despite but because of her antagonistic tactics. Movie critics complain that she doesn't really have a worthy opponent, mainly fall guys that leap to the air and flop to the ground if you so much as touch them--but, hey, there are great comedies like that, comedies with room for only one outsized personality, everyone else just straight men to bounce punchlines against (see: W.C. Fields or, collectively, the Marx Brothers). Likewise the complaint that the school kids aren't all that well-sketched either--that they come in stereotypes (the popular girl, the retard with slack mouth)--has a similar reply: they're props, to be used and abused by a great comedienne once she steps onstage.

And when she does step up? Diaz is great for about, oh, twenty minutes; when it becomes clear that the movie doesn't have a radical direction to take, that the character is not going to go as far as initial momentum promised, you find yourself settling down to a vaguely unsatisfying comedy, coasting on the goodwill engendered by Diaz. The actress is always being slammed for being a pretty if lightweight comic actor, and you see her resentment of years of such remarks brim over in her performance; she snarls, she slinks, she purses her Donald-Duck lips so tightly all the men in the audience groan in frustration--they want to kiss away that pout (only the privilege, they know, is going to cost them dear). Problem is, you warm to her because she's trying, you come over to her side because her basic likeability eventually shines through, not because you've accepted her on her own spiky, take-no-prisoner terms.

Maybe it's helpful to compare Diaz's Elizabeth to oh, say, Billy Bob Thornton's Willie in Bad Santa (2003). Thornton enjoys the juicier target (who hasn't been tempted to take down Santa Claus once in for all, the fat freak?), has the more fearless director (Terry Zwigoff, who made his mark with a documentary on legendary comix artist and feminist lightning rod Robert Crumb (Crumb, 1994)). Diaz takes the bigger, more courageous leap (her role as sweetly ditzy blonde in the Farrelly Brothers' There's Something About Mary (1998) is more typical of her) and her collaborators aren't exactly known for their edgy sensibilities (Jake Kasdan's most significant feature is the 2007 Walk Hard: the Dewy Cox Story while his writers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky are mostly known for their work in TV's The Office). Plus I suppose there's a kind of handicap in a beautiful woman trying to act irredeemable, while Thornton just from appearance alone might make a rehab center director throw up his hands in despair.

There's an essential if breathtaking self-destructiveness to Willie in Bad Santa that you can't help but think you can achieve, if you perhaps inherited his share of bad days and poor decisions (“there but for the grace of God...”). Like standing at the edge of a high cliff, the shudder going through your spine being the wayward thought that you could just step off and nothing you or anyone else can do can stop you. Elizabeth's situation doesn't seem dire enough to warrant such a shudder, much less a shrug; by movie's end she's just another familiar figure in the school hallways--the kind-of-cool counselor who'll set you straight, if you knock on her corner office door.

First published in Businessworld, 9.1.11

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