Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher: What’s Her Motivation?

The saggy premise of her new comedy could use some augmentation

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Gemma LaMana / Columbia Pictures

Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher

Bridesmaids hit theaters six weeks ago, igniting a flurry of recognition, however late and daft, that women are indeed funny. It also offered box-office proof that moviegoers are willing to endure and even enjoy female leads who don’t look quite as good as, say, Cameron Diaz. It was the Comediennes’ Spring. Alas, the underlying sexism of Bad Teacher, which stars Diaz in all her full-throttle leggy glory, pushes the trend into its autumn.

It’s not that the movie isn’t at least a little funny. It is, intermittently. Diaz plays Elizabeth, an Illinois seventh-grade teacher who is insincere, heartless and entirely mercenary — fearless in her embrace of the awful. Sarcastic, crude one-liners slip from her lips easily; she projects a confidence of Eve Arden proportions.

Yet the driving narrative force of the movie is Elizabeth’s desire to obtain fake breasts. I get that screenwriting duo Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg (former Office scribes who also wrote Year One) wanted to make her awful — Bad Santa in stilettos. But her desire to marry someone rich would have fulfilled the venal quotient without contradicting her character. After spending some time with her, I am convinced that Elizabeth likes herself just fine. A middle-aged woman (Diaz is about to turn 39, believe it or not) who looks in the mirror the way Elizabeth does, taking a smug pleasure in the rightness of her assets, is not obsessing about add-ons. Preservation, maybe.

Elizabeth’s motivation is established when her wealthy target of the moment, milquetoast substitute teacher Scott (Justin Timberlake, making the most of an underwritten part), shows her a picture of his well-endowed ex. So he likes boobs. But she pays far less attention to the man than her mammary fund ($10,000 for breasts like the ones she fondles in her doctor’s office). This makes about as much sense as a parched woman in a desert stopping on her way to the oasis for lip surgery.

In the course of a school year, Elizabeth schemes and steals, embezzling from the school car wash and soliciting donations from parents for “supplies.” Her curriculum consists of showing movies about inspirational teachers (Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me) while nursing hangovers and sneaking pipe hits. We (barely) come to know a couple of her students, one a Tracy Flick–style overachiever, the other a lovelorn bad poet. In largely ignoring the kids, director Jake Kasdan (Walk Hard) lets so many opportunities for comedy go by, you have to wonder if he’s seen School of Rock.

Instead he focuses on the faculty and staff. John Michael Higgins (a regular in Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries) makes an appealingly sensible principal and The Office‘s Phyllis Smith a sweet teacher whose affect is somewhere between Winnie the Pooh and Eeyore. A freckly, pudgy gym teacher named Russell (Jason Segel) is a more legitimate love interest for Elizabeth than Scott, in that he shares her sense of humor and love of pot. But Diaz’s real comic foil is scene stealer Lucy Punch (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger), who plays the obnoxious teacher across the hall, Amy Squirrel. Amy is a grownup grade grubber; the two women compete for Scott and an annual cash prize for the teacher whose class excels on a state-administered test. Suddenly bad teacher Elizabeth turns into Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds, drilling the kids on To Kill a Mockingbird.

So she can buy new breasts. That premise keeps tripping the movie up. It never meshes with Diaz’s aggressive performance as the thoroughly empowered shrew. Diaz really gives herself over to Bad Teacher: her makeup is not movie-star quality; her lipstick is a tight red smear, her mascara clumpy, her hair bleached almost saffron. Her pale eyes seem to glow like those of a husky you can’t trust. She’s a little scary, a beautiful witch usually shrouded in black (until she softens and gets a bit nicer and starts wearing pastels).

Diaz wants to be the Bad Santa of education. And she’s halfway there, pursuing shock value like a shark. Elizabeth has visited the bars where the Chicago Bulls hang out and has encountered some success — but she bemoans the players’ wisdom: “They all use condoms, and they take their condoms with them.” Bad Teacher revels in being distasteful. But it can’t just let a bad woman be bad; she also has to be burdened with physical insecurity, even if it makes no sense. Can you imagine if Billy Bob Thornton’s character had become Bad Santa so he could steal to fund his penis implant?