Saturday, November 19, 2011

Bad Teacher (Mosaic/Columbia, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Bad Teacher, released earlier this year in theatres and then on DVD, which offered a choice of the 92-minute theatrical release (rated “R”) and a 97-minute “unrated edition.” I ran the latter (the differences between them are basically more explicit sexual situations — one of the most delightful gags of the version we saw was not in the theatrical release, more on that later — and more dirty words) and had a great time with it. Granted that almost no modern comedy is going to make me laugh as hard as a classic from Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy or the Marx Brothers — and the one that came closest came out of left field, Scott Prendergast’s 2007 indie Kabluey, of whom I wrote in my journal, “Had he been born in 1900 instead of 1970 would probably have had a great career in silent comedy” — but Bad Teacher, though it contained one flatulence gag (alas, no “comedy” made by the major studios today seems complete without one!) and a lot of raunchy sex talk and situations (fortunately, most of it genuinely funny raunchy sex talk and situations!), was genuinely entertaining and amusing if only rarely laugh-out-loud funny.

It’s about a teacher from hell, Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz), who’s the most blatant golddigger we’ve seen on screen since Joan Blondell and/or Glenda Farrell chatted up Guy Kibbee for his millions in innumerable Warners programmers in the 1930’s. When the movie begins she’s about to retire from her teaching job at a school incongruously referred to as “Jams” (it’s short for John Adams Middle School) — and yes, seventh grade there is as hellish as I remember it from my own life (in terms of being teased and bullied it was the worst year of my childhood; for me things actually got better in high school, where it being the late 1960’s I met more nonconformists and people I could genuinely respect and get along with) in order to marry a rich pigeon, Steven, only Steven shows up with his mother in tow and tries to break off the engagement as politely as possible, while mom is pushing him to throw the tramp out on her ear without any of the pleasantries he’s trying to muster. So she has to return to teaching, though she makes clear it’s only to do the bare minimum to draw a paycheck and make a living (she’s rooming with a fat male pig she met on Craigslist) until she can hook her rich man and marry into the fortune she thinks she deserves. (She drives a red sports car with the license plate “Hers” and almost always wears Christian Louboutin’s red-soled designer shoes — result of a product placement deal between the film’s producers and Louboutin, though the brand name also gets written into the script.)

Her big motivation is to raise the nearly $10,000 she needs for a breast expansion at Chicago’s highest-end plastic surgeon (in one grimly amusing scene, also deleted from the theatrical release, she looks at the distented breasts of the native women in Africa in a National Geographic-style magazine and seems to be seriously considering that as a model for what she wants), and she finds out that a potential rich “catch” is already available, more or less: nerdy substitute teacher Scott Delacorte (played by a surprisingly unsexy Justin Timberlake — that’s actually a compliment to him that he’s able to suppress his usual twinky attractiveness to suit the role) who turns out to be related to the Louboutins on his mother’s side. The only problem is that Scott is interested not in Elizabeth but her fellow teacher Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch) — who, despite her silly last name, is one of the two closest things in this movie to a decent human being — who’s red-headed, down-to-earth and, unlike Elizabeth (who uses virtually all her class time to show her students movies), genuinely cares about her job and her students. The most amusing aspect of Bad Teacher is its — and its central character’s — sheer relentlessness: willing to stop at nothing to get the money she needs for her breast remodel, Elizabeth vamps the principal and feigns an interest in his principal avocation, dolphins (he’s even joined a Save the Children-type foundation, only instead of getting to adopt a child he got to adopt a dolphin), to keep him from coming down on her unconventional, to say the least, teaching methods; she also dons a wig from the school’s production of Little Orphan Annie and poses as a reporter to obtain the answers for that year’s standardized tests once she hears that the teacher whose class turns in the best test scores in Cook County is eligible for a $5,700 bonus.

From then on the movies in the classroom stop and instead she drills her students in the inner meanings of the novel To Kill a Mockingbird (the parallels to the movie Up the Down Staircase and the lesson Sandy Dennis’s character gives on the meanings of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” are probably intentional, though the contrast between the 1967 movie about the idealistic teacher who wanted to make a difference in her students’ lives and the 2011 movie about the spoiled-rotten teacher who wanted only to land a new set of tits and a rich man says volumes about how the moral sense of this country has deteriorated over that time), gets the great test scores out of her class that she intended and gets the bonus. She also hatches a plot to seduce Scott by arranging to go with him to a field trip to Springfield, both the Illinois state capital and the home town of Abraham Lincoln, by rubbing poison ivy over Amy’s apple and thereby rendering her unable to go, and in the raunchy scene I mentioned earlier that was deleted from the theatrical release (it seems that the funniest gags in this movie were the ones deleted from the theatrical release!) she finally makes it into bed with him and has sex with him, sort of. It seems he’s still too nerdy and too hung up over his body to have actual intercourse, or even to take his clothes off, so he ends up orgasming by rubbing his crotch against her ass and then director Jake Kasdan (son of Lawrence Kasdan of The Big Chill) cuts to a medium shot of him showing the wet spot on his jeans.

Writers Gene Stupnitsky (who should probably change his name before some critic who doesn’t like one of his movies makes the inevitable pun on it, “Stupidsky”) and Lee Eisenberg try to give their movie a “positive” ending by a flatly unbelievable Capra-esque finish in which Elizabeth lets go of Scott, who pairs up with Amy, and ends up with the poor but nice gym teacher (Jason Segel) who’s been after her throughout (and a new gig as a guidance counselor at JAMS, which was supposed to be an uproarious gag but which left me shaking my head) — it would have been more believable if, after blowing it with Scott, she hooked up with a Bill Gates-style multibillionaire who showed up at JAMS to give it a much-publicized gift of computer equipment, and waved a contemptuous goodbye from his limo to everyone at the school who still gave a damn — but until that false moment Bad Teacher is a movie that entertains and astonishes in its sheer relentlessness, the utter amorality of its central character, though frankly the Lifetime movie Mini’s First Time (whose main difference from Bad Teacher is that the amoral female protagonist is a student, not a teacher, and which has the requisite cynical ending instead of a silly attempt at a worm-turning one) did the same trope even more outrageously and even better!