With Adam Mansbach's Go the F*** to Sleep making such a splash on the literary scene, Bad Teacher should take note of how candid, cynical humor about child care can succeed. Instead, the newest film from Jake Kasdan (Orange County and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story) is more callous than amusing, more crude than clever.
Elizabeth, played by Cameron Diaz, is no Miss Crabtree: She comes to class hungover, she smokes weed on campus, she steals money from the class fund-raiser to put in her "new boobs" fund for breast augmentation. Her failures as a human, much more so than her failures as a teacher, make her equal parts an unbelievable and undeserving protagonist. Within the first 10 minutes of the film, she tries to hide the fact that she doesn't know her own fiancé's birthday, and by the time she has smeared poison ivy all over her school rival's coffee mug, you'll be wondering why you're supposed to care whether she has the inevitable epiphany and character change the film demands.
But change she does, the mechanics of which are more than a little shoddy. After telling a sad-poetry-wielding preteen that he's sensitive — "That's not a compliment," she adds — and that he'll never get the girl he's pining for, Elizabeth takes off her bra and gives it to him to show his buddies and bolster his rep. Harking back to Molly Ringwald's similar benevolent gesture in Sixteen Candles, this might have been pitifully sweet if Elizabeth weren't, well, his teacher. But we are to take this as a sign that Elizabeth is starting her transformation.
Bad Teacher's lack of restraint continually takes Elizabeth's impudence to ridiculous new heights: dry humping to completion with her rival's insufferable boyfriend (Justin Timberlake) or hosing herself down at the carwash fund-raiser, prompting a shot of one of her students with a hard-on. As if directed by the very pack of horny boys Elizabeth mishandles, the film frequently cannot control itself from toppling into an exercise in sex jokes and scatology. Each time a shot at genuine situational comedy emerges, the film opts for gross-out humor instead.
For instance, when the eager Miss Squirrel (Lucy Punch), Elizabeth's diametric opposite, tracks down the principal as he, ahem, tends to some business in the men's room, the awkward entrapment is funny enough. But the scene, unable to quit while it's ahead, ends with — how to put it delicately? — gratuitous, unholy bathroom noises.
The film falters this way for the full 90-minute runtime, Elizabeth acting out of line in her uninspired, hardened cynic's role. This is, of course, the premise. But unlike other tales of hilarious, jaded cranks finding their soft spot (Bad Santa comes to mind), Bad Teacher spends so much time making Elizabeth a one-dimensional miscreant, it leaves you rooting for anyone but her.