Andy Bockelman: ‘Bad Teacher’ makes the grade | CraigDailyPress.com

Andy Bockelman: ‘Bad Teacher’ makes the grade

Andy Bockelman is a member of the Denver Film Critics Society, and his movie reviews appear in Explore Steamboat and the Craig Daily Press.

In the field of education, the pecking order starts with the infinitely dedicated instructors, followed by their enthusiastic but less effective colleagues, then the slightly incompetent and finally the people who have no business whatsoever standing at the head of the class. And, situated a few rungs below the lowest of the low is the subject of the comedy "Bad Teacher."

Inspirational educator-themed movies like "Lean on Me," "Stand and Deliver" and "Dangerous Minds" have had a profound impact on the career of Chicago middle school English teacher Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz). They give her something to show her students throughout the school day while she catches a nap or takes a nip of liquor.

Her "lesson plans" have raised a few eyebrows with the rest of the faculty, but she has never intended to make a real job out of teaching, just killing time until she can snag a husband who can make sure that she never has to work another day in her life.

And, Elizabeth may have just found her patsy in good-hearted substitute teacher Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), an heir to a lucrative family business. When her attempts to seduce him fall flat, she decides to up the ante with breast enhancement surgery, although her salary isn't nearly enough to finance such a procedure.

As the school year goes on, her attempts to raise funds becomes more and more frantic until the only option is to go for the big payola, a bonus check handed down from the state for the teacher whose class receives the highest scores on the annual standardized test.

And, Elizabeth isn't about to let the laziness that has rubbed off on her students prevent her from getting what she wants.

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It's fun to see Diaz as the giggly girl next door, but it's even more fun to see her as the unsmiling, manipulative girl from across the street who steals your toys and gives you a charley horse when you try to kiss her. The actress is surprisingly subdued and hilariously so as the kind of teacher who just doesn't care about anyone except herself.

Jason Segel is fine as Russell, the school's gym teacher, who sees Elizabeth for what she is and likes her anyway, even though she spurns his advances time and again. Diaz's ex, Timberlake, excellently plays her intended as a well-meaning dimwit, who isn't a much better influence on the impressionable teens and tweens than she is, exuding hardly an iota of intellect as he tries to be "the cool teacher."

But, just because somebody is keen about their job doesn't mean they're a saint, as exemplified by Lucy Punch as Elizabeth's nemesis, Amy Squirrel — yes, that is her real last name — a super-upbeat and super-competitive social studies teacher who holds Scott's favor and quickly recognizes Elizabeth's new attitude as a threat to her status as the top dog.

Fortunately for our anti-heroine, nobody else at the school is that observant, as she easily cons parents, fellow teachers and the principal (John Michael Higgins) into believing she actually cares about molding young minds.

If Billy Bob Thornton's "Bad Santa" character had a daughter, Elizabeth probably wouldn't need a DNA test to claim paternity, displaying the same tendencies of doing the right thing only as a last resort. Writing partners Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky must have had the foul-mouthed holiday figure in mind when approaching the screenplay, but the pair brings their own experience from "The Office" in creating a workplace where ineptitude and idleness go unpunished and often wind up rewarded.

So, what better setting than the American public school system?

Like director Jake Kasdan's low-key successes "Orange County" and "The TV Set," this is a movie where the humor comes from knowing that the characters with noble intentions are bound to be crushed while their idiot counterparts get ahead without even trying. Though the story inevitably holds back and insists on spoon-feeding us and Elizabeth a lesson, her more outrageous moments are just too funny, particularly her treatment of her coworker, Lynn, wonderfully played in a modest capacity by "Office" supporting actress Phyllis Smith.

On the surface, there's not much to be learned from "Bad Teacher," but like all of Kasdan's films, there's more than meets the eye in the subtleties of the scenario, which are hilariously realistic. And, be honest, kids — Are you more likely to pay attention to a lecture about "To Kill a Mockingbird" from the teachers of "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," "Dead Poets Society" and "To Sir, with Love" or the sexy blonde who turns a car wash fundraiser into a peep show?

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Movie at a glance

“Bad Teacher,” 3 out of 4 stars; 92 minutes; Starring: Cameron Diaz, Justin Timberlake, Jason Segel and Lucy Punch.

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