‘Bad Teacher’ movie review: Cameron Diaz comedy goes from bad to worse

I’ll give Bad Teacher this: it gets some laughs. I was surprised to hear an audience of journalists snickering at this film, and even more surprised to find myself, at times, joining them. But the laughing is generally at the film, which is funny in spite of itself due to some talented comedic performers who get laughs out of absurd throwaway gags and one-liners. The scripted comedy here is generally the pits.

That goes double for the rest of the film, which has clearly been inspired by Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa. Only it’s fun to see Santa be bad, and Billy Bob Thornton’s Santa was badder, and pathetic (meaning we’re allowed to care for him despite his actions), and his character has an actual arc; ultimately, he does the right thing. In Bad Teacher, a slutty, doped-up, deceitful, airheaded teach dicks around her middle school children for the entire movie, and learns nothing of the error of her ways.

And we’re expected to like her, I think. If for no other reason, that’s because the teacher is played by Cameron Diaz, who is always sweet and likable, a charming performer with a gift for comedy. But when she’s playing repulsive, here and in What Happens in Vegas, she’s entirely too effective: she becomes repulsive incarnate and loses all the natural charm.

Elizabeth Halsey (Diaz) has just “retired” from the teaching profession in advance of impending marriage. Unfortunately, the groom-to-be’s mother has intervened, broken up the engagement, and forced poor Elizabeth to return to middle school. 

Here, she screens a daily movie (Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, etc.) to a room of students whose names she doesn’t bother to remember (the film doesn’t, either) and passes out hungover behind her desk. Later, she’ll toke up in the parking lot while earnest youngsters tap on her car window to give her cookies and get wretched life advice in return.

The plot, as it were, splinters in a number of directions. Liz needs money for a boob job, so she helps out at the school car wash and raids the coffers, and rigs her students’ grades on state exams to get an additional bonus.

A sweet colleague, Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch) suspects Liz’s transgressions, and attempts to expose her; for daring to harm our protagonist, the film repeatedly vilifies and humiliates her. Liz, ahem, seduces Amy’s co-worker boyfriend, Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), which culminates in a dry humping scene that must be seen to be believed, complete with an unforgettable pained expression on Timberlake’s face and a splotch on his trousers.

There’s also the token romantic interest in gym teacher Russell Gettis (Jason Segel). This character is so shoehorned into the plot – and Segel so rarely seen with any other actors outside of Diaz – that the role seems to have been added as an afterthought, as if test audiences needed to see Diaz’s depraved bimbo participate in a “healthy” relationship. If the film had any real bite, at one point, this role has sapped most of it away.

Were the Elizabeth character to receive some comeuppance, or progress into a better person, or just recognize that some of the things she has done are bad, Bad Teacher might make some sense. As it is – a parade of meanness that expects us to take it at face value – it’s a mess. The director was Jake Kasdan, who has made some decent films in the past (Walk Hard, Zero Effect); I suspect studio tinkering was responsible for the final cut here.

For all the film’s faults, however, it’s safe to say that you will not be bored while watching Bad Teacher. And it just might get some laughs out of you, even though you know better.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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