Lately, Cameron Diaz is known more for the men she dates than the movies she makes. Over her 16-year film career, it’s hard to tell the difference between versatility and never quite finding a niche. She has starred in romances (My Best Friend’s Wedding; The Holiday), dramas (Gangs of New York; In Her Shoes), action films (Charlie’s Angels; Knight and Day), psychological thrillers (Vanilla Sky; The Box), animated movies (the Shrek series), and indie fare such as Being John Malkovich and A Life Less Ordinary.
Still, it is comedies like There’s Something About Mary and The Mask where Diaz made her name, so it would seem natural for the now 38-year-old actress to return to her familiar stomping grounds with Bad Teacher. The passing years have done little to dim Diaz’s outsized personality (a welcome trait for this genre) and it helps that she doesn’t look like she’s aged a day over the past decade.
However, it’s another black comedy, the similarly titled Bad Santa, with which Bad Teacher shares its comedic DNA. Unfortunately, that connection predominantly involves irreverent, irredeemable and unlikable protagonists we’re asked to cheer for against all sense of logic and decency. After getting dumped by her rich fiancée for being a gold digger, the suddenly cash-strapped Elizabeth Halsey (Diaz) reluctantly returns for her second year teaching at John Adams Middle School. Elizabeth is hostile to her students and coworkers. She spends her nights—and often workdays—getting drunk and high, and then sleeps off the hangover by babysitting her seventh graders with school-related films like Stand and Deliver, Lean On Me and Dangerous Minds.
Elizabeth also decides that her road to happiness includes breast enlargement surgery. Unable to afford a boob job on a teacher’s salary, she dons her daisy dukes to raise money for the school’s annual car wash fundraiser just so she can skim the profits. She solicits bribes from parents in exchange for giving their children good grades. She makes advances towards Scott (Justin Timberlake), a rich, feckless substitute teacher with a predilection for cardigans and dry humping. And, when she learns a bonus for the teacher whose class has the highest end-of-grade test results, she drugs a school administrator in order to steal the answer key and use it for test prep.
The most devious trick of Bad Teacher is slyly luring the audience into rooting for Elizabeth’s foul-mouthed misdeeds to win out over her nemesis, Amy (Lucy Punch), a holier-than-thou coworker whose main transgressions are taking pride in being a good teacher and ferreting out Elizabeth’s actual misconduct.
That unsavory sleight-of-hand, together with director Jake Kasdan’s send-up of classroom pieties, isn’t enough to compensate for the lazy scatology and off-color one-liners about blacks, Jews, gays and “Orientals” that are offensive principally because they lack any satirical context. Only Jason Segel gets good quips as Russell the sardonic gym teacher, whether he’s taking Elizabeth down a peg as he doggedly pursues her affections or arguing with a student that Michael Jordan was a better basketball player than LeBron James. Otherwise, the wayward jokes, like the film’s disjointed storyline and superficial characters, lack wit or rhythm.
In the end, the only “nice” thing Elizabeth does is salvaging the cred of the class nerd (Matthew J. Evans) by starting the false rumor that she caught him groping an eighth grader. No matter. The only apple this Bad Teacher deserves is one with a worm in it.