Cameron Diaz has been in some funny movies, but she's never been the funniest character in one of them. She's never needed to be; in the comedies, she's always been a supporting character or a co-lead. That pattern of being at most mildly funny continues in Bad Teacher -- only this time it's a problem, because the movie is all about her. The teacher is bad, sure, but not funny.
This unimaginatively raunchy comedy follows the Bad Santa mold by putting a reprobate in an occupation normally associated with saintlier types. Diaz plays Elizabeth Halsey, a middle-school English teacher who drinks, smokes pot, swears at her students, and spends every class period showing movies like Stand and Deliver and Dangerous Minds. A gold-digger by nature, Elizabeth is only teaching (well, "teaching") until she can land a rich husband. In the meantime, she needs $10,000 for a boob job, so she steals from the school fundraiser.
That's only the beginning, something to set the tone. In general, the movie -- directed by Jake Kasdan (Orange County, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story) -- has a pretty relaxed attitude about storyline, preferring to shamble along from one episode to another as it covers Elizabeth's school year. She has her eyes on Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), a cheesy fellow teacher who comes from a wealthy family. She half-heartedly rebuffs the advances of the relatively decent gym teacher, Russell (Jason Segel), who's broke. She is annoyed by her opposite, Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch), the very picture of what a perky and dedicated middle-school teacher should be, and who is more Scott Delacorte's type to boot. The thread running through it all is that Elizabeth needs to come up with $10,000.
There's nothing wrong with a dark comedy about a transgressive character who never really learns anything. The problem here isn't that Elizabeth is an unrepentantly awful person; it's that she's an uncreatively awful person. Diaz performs with gusto, but the screenplay (by Year One scribes Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg) doesn't give her many funny things to say. She's rude, petty, and shallow -- but she rarely demonstrates it with anything better than a generic putdown. The very fact that she IS an awful person, by itself, is only amusing for a few minutes.
So while Elizabeth is clearly meant to be a funny character, most of the big laughs in the film -- and there are some -- come from the supporting cast. Lynn, a timid fellow teacher, is played by Phyllis Smith, better known as Phyllis on The Office; her delivery as a square who wants to be cool is pitch-perfect. Lucy Punch is likewise terrific as goody-goody Ms. Squirrel, who would be a fine enemy for Elizabeth if only Elizabeth herself were better defined. There's John Michael Higgins as the nerdy Midwestern principal, Thomas Lennon as an easily duped representative of the state testing board, Matt Besser as a semi-enthusiastic Abraham Lincoln impersonator at a historical site, Molly Shannon as the mother of one of Elizabeth's students -- all sharp comic actors, all adept at shining during their few moments at center stage.
But we must return to the curiously underdeveloped parts of the film. The screenplay awkwardly implies that Scott Delacrote is a conservative prude, but doesn't define it very well or give Timberlake much to work with, and Timberlake, grasping at straws, plays the role like an SNL character. When it comes time for Scott's big moment -- a bizarre sex scene -- I was more puzzled than amused, because nothing had been done to establish WHY he would be acting this way. Similarly, there are oblique mentions of a mental breakdown Ms. Squirrel had a few years ago, but no payoff to it. Then there's Elizabeth's weird roommate (Eric Stonestreet), whose thing is that he's ... dumb? Intimidating? Crazy? He shows up in just a couple scenes, long enough for you to feel like he was supposed to be more fleshed out than he is.
That's the movie in a nutshell: solid premise, good cast, not enough fleshing out. Bad Teacher is eager to wring laughs out of naughtiness, but doesn't expend enough effort to get them. Just being bad isn't sufficiently funny. You have to be bad in creative, clever, and original ways.