Many actresses seek to prove their acting chops by removing their makeup, frumping their wardrobes, and otherwise de-emphasizing their most glamorous assets in roles that call for them to emote high drama while being noble. In BAD TEACHER, Cameron Diaz slathers on the eyeliner and lipstick, hikes her tight skirts to dizzying heights, and wipes the screen with her co-stars while scheming, manipulating, and otherwise conniving to get the breast implants that will propel her titular character, Elizabeth Halsey, via marriage, into the life of wealth from which she was so abruptly banished. While there are problems with choppy editing, uncertain continuity, and a failure to maintain a consistent tone, Diaz is never less than exhilarating in a guilty pleasure way, even when hunched over her desk with an expression of glazed, disheveled contempt. Actually, especially then.
The contempt is for her situation, which is back teaching at John Adams Middle School when her rich fiance breaks their engagement. Left to fend for herself, she returns to regroup and ponder her next move. That might be the new substitute Scott (Justin Timberlake), a fresh-faced and geeky boy-man from a family with money. She kills time showing education-themed movies to her class, ignoring responsibility, and working unexpected angles to raise the cash she needs for the surgery that will move her back to the good life.
The story is clever enough to pit her against another scheming manipulator in the person of Miss Squirrel (Lucy Punch), a perky fellow teacher who is, at heart, no more noble than is our Ms. Halsey, but is far less effective, not to mention far less intelligent, and, damnably, far less interesting. And this, too, is a bold move, making XXX not just amoral, but also easily the most interesting character in the story, as well as smart. Very smart. Like Shakespeares Richard III, cutting a wide and bloody swath through the heirs between him and the English throne, Elizabeth is so up front about what she wants, so pure in her intentions, so at peace with her methods, and so delighted with her ability, it is impossible not to be on her side. Even when shes lobbing dodgeballs at students who arent performing up to their potential. Miss Squirrel, ably played on the edge of neuroses by Punch, doesnt stand a chance.
The stunt casting of Diazs ex-boyfriend Timberlake as Elizabeths prey pays off. The chemistry may not be of the simmering or sultry nature, his character is the antithesis of sexuality, but the comedic give and take makes for a perfect pairing. Jason Segal has a savvy irony as the paunchy gym teacher who sees Elizabeth for the human wreckage that she is, but still wont take no for an answer from her when he cant resist her. Phyllis Smith turns a one-dimensional and dithering marshmallow into an interesting study in the conflict between desire and convention, Henry Michael Higgins, is the dolphin-obsessed but otherwise disengaged principal, and they are supported by the usual gaggle of kids found in flicks set in a middle school, played by actors who avoid cutesiness and given a script that sets them up perfectly for the bald truth Elizabeth dumps on them with matter-of-fact disengagement in place of the usual cheery esteem-boost called for by curriculum and compassion.
Raunchiness abounds, along with a dedication to comedy that is boisterously, joyously cringe-worthy. If anything, it doesnt go far enough as the film, if not Elizabeth, suddenly grows a conscience of sorts, and goes more warm and fuzzy than it should. Diaz, to her credit, takes it in stride, keeping a raspy edge even when called upon to be, horrors, nice.
There is probably a cut of BAD TEACHER out there somewhere with an alternate ending. And more jokes that are so wrong that they are nothing but right. Heres hoping the DVD will include them.