Antiheros are typically fun to watch because they represent the part of every viewer where pleasantries fear to tread and where people probably find the most peace. Audiences appreciate antiheros because they can actualize this space into their everyday lives, no matter how abrasive their behavior might be. The catch, however, is that antiheros still need to be heroic in some way lest they cross the line and simply become villains. Bad Teacher features one such antihero that doesn’t quite redeem herself, but neither is she as terrible as she could have been.
Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) is an uninspired and uninspiring junior high teacher who gives up the profession for a life of luxury with her rich fiancé. When he discovers Elizabeth’s gold digging ways, however, the fiancé breaks off the engagement and Elizabeth’s cash flow, forcing her back into education to teach across the hall from over-enthusiastic educator Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch). With no direction in life, Elizabeth spends the school year making her class watch movies while she drinks at her desk and smokes dope in the parking lot. She sees a flicker of hope, however, when substitute teacher – and heir to a great fortune – Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake) transfers to the school. Elizabeth sizes Scott up as a man who enjoys ample bosoms and finds her own lacking, so she connives to raise enough money for plastic surgery, which puts her on the path to become the Educator of the Year in order to win a large bonus. Unfortunately, Amy has other plans, which includes making sure Scott ends up with her.
As far as antiheros go, a bad junior high teacher is a pretty good choice, but it won’t strike that many people as ironic. Most people who have experienced education within the last ten years can probably point out at least one or two educators similar to Elizabeth, perhaps not as extreme, but rendering the character more truthful than satirical. After all, isn’t it easy to imagine a teacher becoming disenchanted with youth today? Unfortunately, Elizabeth very rarely aspires to be a hero, which antiheros necessarily must become – even if by accident. Instead, Elizabeth spends her days behaving badly and scamming people out of money. Nothing she does, save for a few gestures, actually helps anyone, whereas the damage she does is great, making it difficult to root for her.
Still, there’s plenty of comedy to be had, mainly coming from the supporting cast. Phyllis Smith as the heavyset Lynn Davies will get audiences ready to laugh based on her looks alone, but also shows off her comedic chops as she waffles on every decision. Lucy Punch turns in a strong performance as the bubbly and saccharine Amy. It would be little surprise if she studied Sarah Palin for her cadence and sometimes goofy speech. Punch also appears to be doing the most acting of the entire cast and her character feels fully realized rather than simply being the actor or actress playing themselves with a different name and profession. For example, while Justin Timberlake is involved in one of the biggest gags in the film, the comedy feels more centered on Justin Timberlake being caught in an awkward situation rather than his character.
Cameron Diaz does a serviceable job with her role, but there isn’t much for her to do other than just be disagreeable. Even some of the better gags, like pummeling her students with dodgeball balls for giving wrong answers, feel half-hearted, especially when the students get a chance to turn the tables. Still, she looks fantastic, despite a grouping of heavy wrinkles around the eyes, and watching her wash cars will be a highlight of the film.
Overall, Bad Teacher is a collection of humorous scenes connected by an almost satisfying story. There’s some nice character development in the supporting cast, but there’s very little change in the main character. She remains unreasonable and unsympathetic to the very end, which won’t necessarily have audiences lauding her successes, but viewers can at least take heart in seeing how the characters surrounding Elizabeth benefit from her presence.