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July 09, 2011

Movie Review: Bad Teacher -- Two and a Half Stars

Not nearly as funny as the trailer suggested, though still so-so funny. It's more interesting, oddly enough, as a Rorsharch test on feminism. Because a lot of critics despised Diaz's character, and I think that's due to a mix of (if you can imagine this) a combination of sexism and feminism (which is itself often just a dunderheadedly pro-woman sexism).

First up, the actual movie. This is one of those movies where the trailer does indeed contain all the movie's best jokes. In fact, several good jokes from the trailer were cut, inexplicably, from the film. And the trailer basically previews the template of all the other jokes it doesn't explicitly reveal, inappropriate cursing around children, walking into class bleary-eyed and hung over and high, Diaz dressing like a high-class tramp to teach middle school, etc.

So even the jokes you haven't seen? You've kind of seen them.

This is not a bad movie at all, and not at all unfunny. I've seen bad comedies where literally nothing is funny, where I've actually been confused as to what the filmmakers believed I would find funny.

This is not that kind of total-loss comedy, not even close. The jokes here are funny, but almost all the jokes not in the trailer are the chuckle/smile type, not the explosive laugh type. Almost all the jokes land; few of them land very hard, though.

You won't walk out of the movie quoting lines. In fact, you'll have difficulty remembering any. (Except the ones from the trailer.)

The four leads all help their careers a lot here. An actress I've never heard of before (I think she's British) named Emily Punch is very good as the weird rival teacher, appropriately named "Amy Squirrel." Justin Timberlake proves he can act, at least in an undemanding light-comedy role, and Jason Segal proves he can be a credible leading man/romantic interest in a comedy. I know, he sort of already proved that in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but that was his own movie, written to his own strengths; here he proves he can just show up in a movie not written by himself and play the Handsome (?-- sorta) Love Interest.

And Cameron Diaz plays a role that women usually don't get to play. Much, much, much more on this after the jump.

I'd recommend it, but with those caveats. Turn expectations down to medium-low and enjoy it as a semi-successful, not terribly ambitious or inventive disposable comedy, and it works just fine, and passes the time nicely, and you'll have some small laughs consistently.

On to the sexual politics part. 2011 is going to be remembered as an important year in movies, as the Year of Women in Comedy. Bad Teacher is not nearly as good a movie as Bridesmaids -- not even close -- but it deserves a mention alongside it as far as 2011's female comedy breakout. Because Bad Teacher finally allows female comedy actors to play the role male comedy actors have long enjoyed -- the Rogue.

If you read the reviews for this film, you'll see that a high number of critics are positively hostile to Cameron Diaz's character, slamming her as a superficial, manipulative, selfish, amoral, predatory almost-sociopathic schemer. Over and over again I read how she's simply not worth rooting for, with critics questioning how on earth they imagined an audience would care what happens to such a horrid creature.

I think this is interesting, because Cameron Diaz's character is not exactly new. This character has been in 500 comedies, 15 of them with Bill Murray.

The venal, cynical schemer -- sort of a comedic Terminator of unrelenting selfishness and manipulation -- is a standard stock character going back centuries. Did these critics who hated Diaz here not see Stripes? Or have they never noticed that Joel McHale plays virtually the same character in Community? George Costanza in Seinfeld? Wilson and Vaughan in Wedding Crashers? Caine and Martin in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels?

Or, for that matter, Billy Bob Thorton in Bad Santa (which the writers here obviously saw)?

There's a whole subgenre of (no one calls it this, but this is what it is) The Comedy of Bad Behavior.

The novelty here is that it's a woman playing the age-old role of the charming, comedic villain-as-hero. The character's selfishness and superficiality are the whole point.

No, it's not a nice character. The character has no moral attractiveness. But the character is attractive in other ways -- the character is charming and funny and you're supposed to (if the film is successful) root for the amoral rogue just because he (or she) seems to be having so much fun screwing with people.

Secretly, deep in our hearts, many of us would like to be Dr. Peter Venkman or John Winger, just for a few days at least, to see how it feels to really not give a crap about anything and to skate by on glib charm and a willingness to use people.

Some comedies are considered masterpieces not because they're so awesomely funny but rather because they indulge our fantasy of breaking the rules and getting away with it.

Point is, I think some critics aren't feminist enough on this score, or aren't imaginative enough to accept that hey, a girl can play that role too, and that doesn't make that character a bitch any more than the Standard Bill Murray (80s edition) Character is considered a dick.

I guess it depends on whether or not you find the character charming and funny enough to overcome how odious she is in her shameless amorality. I thought Diaz was, so I don't get the hostility towards the character.

BTW, there's an old, old Hollywood trope called "pet the dog." Literally, when you have a main character, who you want the audience to like, pet a dog, to show he's a good person. Or give a lollipop to a little girl.

As that's a little too obvious nowadays, this is often achieved now by giving a character Hidden Depth or Hidden Hurt, like with a character alluding early to some Past Trauma involving a family member or friend, which the character finally breaks down and explains just before Act III.

And then you say, Ohhhh. So that's why she treats people like objects. It's because her best friend as a child died of Lupus and she's never gotten over it. See, it's not that she's hard-hearted; it's because she's so big-hearted this was the only way she could process her pain from that loss, by hiding her heart away.

Or whatever.

Or you add depth via the Secret Ambition. I've always wanted to design the next great American bridge. So you say, Ohhh, the character wants to build a great bridge. What a noble-sounding dream. I like nice bridges, so now I like this character.

Or whatever.

Bad Teacher doesn't have that. I guess some critics were looking for that, needing the script to provide a reason to "like" this character.

Meh. I get the point of that, but it's usually such an obvious, pandering, almost condescending play I'm kind of glad when they just skip the whole Reason To Root For The Character schtick.

I sort of like that she's just as shallow as she appears. She's superficially superficial; and when you scratch beneath the surface, yup, still surface. It's actually more realistic that way, isn't it?


I think part of the hostility from this character comes from self-styled feminists who think that Female Empowerment means all female characters must be good feminist role models.

Check out this list of character traits for Cameron Diaz's character:

1. Is not good at her job, and does not wish to be good at her job, but is content to be incompetent, and probably couldn't be competent even if she tried, which she has no intention of doing, because she's lazy.

2. Is working only in order to meet eligible, wealthy men who will support her well in her preferred position of pampered housewife/sexual gratification object.

3. And by the way, will have sex with men she has no respect for nor any physical attraction to so long as they so provide for her. Why, she'll even fake an enthusiastic sexual interest to keep them happy -- so long as she's rich and idle.

4. Subscribes to an outdated conception of women as primarily valuable due to their sexual attractiveness.

5. Is willing -- nay, eager -- to undergo breast enhancement surgery, as this will make her better at attracting a rich husband.

6. Oh, is also a low-level criminal. And, to the extent the character has an arc, it's that by the end of the film she's graduated to the ranks of middle-level criminal.

The only character traits she has that feminists might approve of are--

1. Despises children.

2. Willing to sleep around.

You get the point. I can't help but think that a big part of the hostility here is motivated by a dunderheaded sexual politics. The character is retrograde and poor example for young feminists.

Um, who cares? Did you not notice the film was named Bad Teacher, and not Outstanding Role Model Teacher?

There's an idea out there -- some conservatives have this too, and are scorned for it, but liberals secretly harbor this idea and aren't even honest about stating it forthrightly -- that the point of all art is elevation, and any art which is non-elevating (or outright degrading) is ipso facto bad art.

I don't buy into the leftist nonsense that takes this rule and simply reverses it into its dumb kneejerk contrarian form -- that good art always must be degrading or subversive of ideals usually considered elevating.

It's more, ahem, nuanced than that. Bad behavior can be interesting, certainly; it's fairly easy to make bad behavior interesting, as the headlines of any tabloid demonstrate.

But it's often a more difficult artistic trick to make good behavior interesting, and artists should challenge themselves to do so.

But getting back to the actual point -- are liberal film critics going to insist that every major female role must be a paragon of empowered and enlightened feminism? How the critics snicker when the leads in Atlas Shrugged seem too good to be true; but offer them up the opposite sort of character -- as anti-feminist a heroine as you can imagine -- and they howl how they despise her.

Is there no room whatsoever for a "minority" character (and feminists consider women to be minorities) who fails to be a role model for others?

It's interesting that when the shoe is on the other foot, liberal critics -- who will happily, eagerly mock conservatives for the belief that all art should be didactic -- covertly insist on a purely didactic message about their cherished shibboleths.

This is dumb. The villain -- or in comedy, the rogue, the villain-as-comedic-antihero -- is often the best role in any movie (or any play, or any book), and dunderheaded liberals are basically insisting that such terrific roles may only be played by white men.

I think I can speak for all white male actors on this point: Thank you! Thank you for insisting we get the best roles in your misguided effort to insure that "minority" actors (including women) only play the Best Friend, the Romantic Object, or the Magic Negro!

Thank you for accusing any film with a black villain of being racist! We sure don't want actors like Yaphet Kotto and Geoffrey Holder making a big impression in a film! We don't want black actors to have their careers launched!

If you define "feminist" not as feminists typically define it, but rather as "increasing the liberty of women to do things they were previously precluded from by either operation of law or social stigma," then this film is, believe it or not, "feminist" for letting a girl be Bad.

(Okay, brief admission: Cameron Diaz is not the first actress to play this role. Of course it's been done before; everything's bee done before. But not often and not lately.)

Most comedy heroines could only have a very sharply limited universe of flaws: shyness, social awkwardness, various neuroses, sexual hang-ups (including sexual underconfidence and sexual awkwardness) and -- this is the one the feminists hate, but have been forced to accept because so many female lead characters have it -- a panicky, cloying desperation to land a man before their looks fade.

The main character in Bridesmaids had all of these, for example. A groundbreaking movie in many ways, but not as far as The List of acceptable flaws for a heroine.

Most comedy heroines have this exact same List, because this is what is "acceptable" in a heroine.

I think it's a good thing that Cameron Diaz gets to play someone different here. Not the fifteenth variation of the Standard Sandra Bullock character or the twentieth reskinning of Bridget Jones or the tenth Liz Lemon clone.

But a genuine Bad Person, with a whole host of hitherto-forbidden flaws.

Like the boys get to play.

One thing I give the hostile critics a partial concurrence on is their complaint that the heroin never grows here, never turns into a better person, never realizes the evil of her ways.

She doesn't. She just profits from her bad behavior. And this winds up making the movie feel incomplete, like it does not have a conclusion, but merely ends.

There's usually a part in this type of movie, ten minutes before the ending, where the hero is humiliated and put through a brief "purging" -- a painful accounting of his or her sins. This is usually followed up with a happily-brief montage of the character now doing right, making up for past wrongs-- a redemption.

Some might believe that's trite and cliched and obligatory. And it largely is. But this sequence in a film has an important function, and I don't mean in the "the character takes you on an emotional journey" way it's usually described.

I mean something more practical -- it lets the audience buy into the obligatory Happy Ending.

Without this Act III purging/redemption, it's hard to believe in a Happy Ending, because it will usually seem like the character has done a lot of bad things (either deliberately, as in a Bad Behavior comedy, or accidentally, as in Bridesmaids, a Social Disaster comedy) and, if those errors are not "paid for" in the course of the film, it feels like they're still lurking out there, ready to bring the character down at some point after the film technically ends.

That is, unless there's a sequence which basically explains to the audience "All this bad behavior? Yeah, in this ten minute sequence we account for all that, and the heroine pays for it both in terms of being punished (through humiliation) and community service (making-up-for-past-sins redemption), so when we say she has a Happy Ending at the end, you can believe that, because we've cleared her Karma Accounts prior to that," then it feels like the heroin got off too easily, and, even worse, that the Happy Ending is a lie.

Because we feel, implicitly, especially in fiction, that Karma Accounts do have to balance out and if there's been no balancing in the film, then there's a suspicion they will be balanced soon after the film ends.

In Bad Teacher (speaking vaguely to avoid spoilers), the heroine does something pretty bad. If having sex with a student is a 10 on the scale of illegal teacher behavior, then what she does is a solid 8 and a half.

And when she does it, the audience (well, I can only speak for myself) wonders: Good Lord, how is she going to get away with this? The standard humiliation/good deeds montage isn't going to cover this.

Oh -- and there's a mountain of evidence against her on it, too.

And how she gets away with it is by doubling down on criminality and doing a committing a fresh crime, a 7 on the scale of teacher illegality. (Actually, now that I remember -- she commits two more level 7 crimes.)

It's all pretty unconvincing stuff. It's hard to believe she'd get away with this at all, and the film's "out" here is trite and implausible.

It feels pretty much like they couldn't think of a way back up from the hole they dug for the character -- no plausible ladder to climb up -- and just hit the Happy Ending Button and then rolled credits.

So, yeah, on this point, I think the critics are right, but not for the reasons they think. It's not that we really need a "Lessons Learned" montage because we're so into Learning Lessons.

It's that we need a much more plausible reason offered to us to explain why our heroine has a Cool New Life at the end of the movie, as opposed to fifteen to twenty-four months in prison.

Okay, so it ends just slightly less abruptly than Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Eh. The movie never really had a chance at greatness anyway, as it's just not funny enough.

Still, I think this winds up being, strangely enough, a movie that's more important than it's actually good. Good enough for a rental, though. And good enough to see in the theaters, even, assuming you don't have to fight the crowds and don't mind paying $10 for a semi-successful chuckles-but-not-big-laughs comedy.

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posted by Ace at 02:21 PM

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