Warning: Spoilers ahead.
The tagline for Mel Gibson’s 1999 film Payback was “Get ready to root for the bad guy.” Though not a false statement, it played up Mel’s badness as a way of contrasting his public persona (at the time, which just adds some fun irony for us some 12 years later). Gibson’s Porter was by no means a good guy – he was a gangster prone to excessive violence, after all – but compared to the assorted thugs and lowlifes he was chasing down, he was damn near angelic. We weren’t so much rooting for the bad guy as we were rooting for the lesser of many evils.
Four years later, Billy Bob Thornton would set the thermostat to a much closer temperature for Bad Teacher with his black comedy Bad Santa. Apparently liking the way that film and his character played out, he was back two years later in Bad News Bears, a remake of the 1976 classic that had him doing all of the same things he did in Santa, with the miracle of sports standing in for the miracle of baby Jesus.
This is where Bad Teacher gets a…no, I can’t say it, but the last word is “rap.” How can I rephrase? Let’s just say that if you’re expecting yet another film in which the “naughty” antihero is transformed by the power of (fill in the blank) into a cuddly, loving heroine, you’ve come to the wrong place. For certain, if you’ve seen the trailer for Bad Teacher, there’s a 98% chance you can predict exactly how things will play out – save for this one grace, one that I think is substantially saving.
Cameron Diaz’s Elizabeth Halsey is a royal bitch. She’s a gold-digger, a conniver, a drug user (oh, the horrors of pot!), rude, narcissistic, and – oh yeah – really is a poor excuse for a teacher. She cares about one thing: gettin’ paid, preferably by a naive moron of a sugar daddy who will keep her lavished with diamonds and away from those skanky things called jobs. Since the premise of the film is centered around her job at a middle school, it should come as no surprise that she has not succeeded in her plans (to date).
Enter Justin Timberlake as a naive moron of a substitute teacher (and heir to a fortune). Also enter Lucy Punch as Halsey’s antithesis and Jason Segel as the somewhat schlubby gym teacher who sees through Elizabeth’s bullshit. Wackiness…ensue.
Although I’d be lying if I said Bad Teacher was a great film filled with amazing writing and insightful bon mots about living in the 20-teens, that’s not to say it doesn’t have its pleasures. Hell, even the lone attempt at potty humor, painful as it begins, ends with a decent punchline. The basest of pleasures come via Diaz’s various interactions with the wide array of personalities she encounters over the course of the film; Segel is at his most endearing, of course, but I also enjoyed Punch and Kaitlyn Dever as two sides of Election’s own Tracy Flick – the former of a failed version of her and the latter as a junior high version of the annoying go-getter. While someone who acts like Halsey wouldn’t get far in the real world, it’s still guilty fun to see her zing one-liners off nimrods played by John Michael Higgins and Thomas Lennon – a kind of ruder, blunter, more pissed-off version of Kramer.
While the world might not actually be better off with more Halseys in it, we’ve had a solid twenty-year run of political correctness infecting us like a slow-moving virus. It’s nice to get some antidote to that every now and then to keep us grounded.