The problem with "Bad Teacher is that she simply isn't bad enough.
Elizabeth (Cameron Diaz) puts in her time as a teacher at a junior high school, all to prove to her sugar daddy fiancée that she is the marrying type and not really a gold digging viper. But her future step-mother puts a stop to the wedding and Elizabeth returns to the school unready and bitter about having to teach her classes. The job is now necessary to provide a living, a very modest living. The first day back, she runs into the new substitute teacher, Scott (Justin Timberlake) and quickly learns he comes from a rich family and recently broke up with his buxom girlfriend. Elizabeth becomes convinced the way to Scott's heart is by getting a new, expensive boob job. Elizabeth desperately comes up with an assortment of ways to earn, scam and steal the money for the operation. Russell (Jason Segel), the gym teacher, shows some interest in her, but because he is a gym teacher, making a gym teacher's salary, she couldn't be less interested. But he continues to make overtures. Amy (Lucy Punch, the stalker in "Dinner With Schmucks") is a good teacher, who takes great pride in her job, so naturally she and Elizabeth develop an ongoing rivalry. Then, Elizabeth's friend, Lynn (Phyllis Smith, TV's "The Office") tells her about a teaching prize, a prize Amy has won every year. Elizabeth has a new goal.
"Bad Teacher", directed by Jake Kasdan ("Zero Effect", "Orange County") has a handful of laughs, but just as it seems to be fulfilling the promise of the concept, it starts to pull back, as though the filmmakers are afraid to push the envelope too far.
Diaz's portrayal of Elizabeth is basically a one-joke pony. The teacher is foul mouthed and doesn't seem to care who hears it. That's pretty much it. Occasionally, she does something that could be considered 'bad', but these moments simply don't go far enough. The problem is everything is too easy for her. Once she gets an idea, it goes according to her plan. The complications arise from the other people around her. But because these complications don't really present much of a roadblock, everything seems too easy for her. Imagine if Lucy Ricardo had found a job she was good at, a job to earn the money for her new hat, if Ricky had let her into the show, countless episodes of "I Love Lucy" wouldn't exist. "I Love Lucy" is such a timeless classic because Lucy has to work very hard to get to her goals and they are extremely funny because she almost always gets in her own way. "Bad Teacher" misses a lot of opportunities to be funny because she doesn't have to work hard enough, there aren't enough complications.
In fact, the funniest moments come from Amy Squirrel, the character played by Lucy Punch, because she can't convince anyone that Elizabeth is a terrible educator. And, because she is complaining so much, the focus begins to shift to her and we start to learn things about her.
Lucy Punch played easily the most unfunny and annoying character in "Dinner With Shmucks", her previous film. Which is saying a lot. Everyone in that film was annoying and unfunny. In ""Teacher", Amy has some vague similarities, but because her efforts are consistently thwarted by Elizabeth, she becomes desperate and a little funny. This goes on so long that everyone else starts to turn their attention towards Amy, dredging up her unwelcome history and turning a spotlight on her actions. And because of this, Amy becomes the funniest character in the film.
As Diaz is the star of the film, we want and need her to be the center of the story. She is the 'Bad Teacher'. She needs to be bad, to shock us. She sure has a foul mouth, but that is pretty much the extent of it. Maybe some people find this to be enough, but I don't. We need to see and hear more examples of how bad she is. If you are going to make an 'R' rated comedy called "Bad Teacher", really push the boundaries. Diaz and Kasdan don't do this.
The set-up for "Teacher" is funny. We quickly get why Elizabeth is a teacher, what she is trying to do and how she plans to accomplish it. But then everything in her life comes crashing down and we begin to learn a little bit more about Elizabeth. She is a truly desperate person and begins to come up with some ideas about how to get herself back on track.
Justin Timberlake plays Scott, the too-sweet, too-naïve substitute teacher who captures Elizabeth's eye. She corners him and learns more about him. He could be the ticket to the Sweet Life. Initially, his "aw-shucks" naïveté is fun and so different from Elizabeth that we can't help but chuckle. And then he seems oblivious to the ongoing battle between Elizabeth and Amy, which is also amusing. But these ongoing situations only carry the humor so far. When nothing else is developed, the film dies quickly and resorts to the Timberlake staple; he starts singing an older song in a weird way. He has done this repeatedly, on "Saturday Night Live", in films, it even seems to be a part of his new film "Friends with Benefits". It was a funny idea the first few times. But it has now played out.
Jason Segel plays Russell, the gym teacher, and he also has a few good moments. When he initially makes a play for the bad teacher, he is quickly rebuffed. But this doesn't seem to faze him. Later, he does become miffed and decides to retaliate. Again, good for a few moments and then nothing happens.
This is the main problem for the entire film. All of the set-ups are good. For a few moments. But they don't evolve and take on new dimensions to continue to surprise us and entertain us.
"Horrible Bosses", released two weeks after "Teacher", would seem to be ripe for the same problems and criticisms. But "Bosses" delivers on the "Horrible" promise. Each of the three bosses is very bad, for very different reasons. And each of the three actors seems to relish and enjoy the chance to push the boundaries.
In "Teacher", Kasdan and Diaz seem to pull back, afraid of going to that darker place. And because of that, "Bad Teacher" doesn’t just give an 'F', it gets a D.