By Bernie Jablonski
Before getting into our educational double feature, I must warn you that the bar for movies set in high school (yes, I know, BAD TEACHER is junior high) was set by Alexander Payne’s ELECTION (1999) and Lorie Scherfig’s AN EDUCATION (2009). The former is a brilliantly bitter black comedy (which, with the exception of the first two adjectives, BAD TEACHER aspires to be), and the latter a well-plotted character study, (which THE ART OF GETTING BY hopes it will be). Neither of them fails exactly as movies, but ART falls short because of a lack of depth in several areas and TEACHER just isn’t nasty enough, even though the commercials for it assure us it will be.
Not that BAD TEACHER doesn’t try. Just don’t blame Cameron Diaz. She plays a teacher named Elizabeth Halsey who quits her teaching job, is dumped by her ultra rich and mother-dominated (naturally) fiancé, and returns to the same school to replace a departing teacher. Once there, she sets her sights on her next meal ticket (Diaz’s ex, Justin Timberlake), sensitive substitute teacher Scott Delacorte, who’s coming off a broken relationship. Elizabeth comes to the conclusion that the best means of pursuing Delacorte is by enlarging her breasts, and the quest for funding for the surgery is what basically sets the movie’s plot in motion.
Not too unexpectedly, Elizabeth has competition for Delacorte’s hand from fellow oh-so-perky Amy Squirrel (I’m not kidding), and is pursued by a quasi-sensitive gym teacher (Jason Segel). She also befriends Lynne Davies (Phyllis Smith), the polar-opposite colleague friend that a movie like this needs.
Most of the problems in this movie can be blamed on how the screenplay handles character development (and, for that matter, plot development). The actors in this movie are better than the material given them, starting with Diaz. She is totally believable as a man-hunting vixen, but as written, it’s pretty much a one-note part, as can particularly be seen in the “resolution” near the end of the movie. The stunts she pulls to make money at school for her implants (how the money goes directly into her pocket and not the school’s is never really explained) are not all that shocking, like the scene where she manipulates her way into moderating a car wash, showing up in Daisy Dukes and baring her fearsome midriff and not resisting getting soaked with (lots of) water. At least she does play the role with enthusiasm, and with that, reveals another facet of her as an actress. (Revealing her legs and midriff helps immeasurably, too. There. I said it.)
Justin Timberlake’s performance of his character is so milque-toasty you expect him to melt into the ground. When he shows Diaz a picture of his bikini-clad ex, who broke up with him a year ago, he gets all pensive and says that the thing he misses most about her is her big…heart. Seriously, this seems like something that would be rejected by Saturday Night Live, and Timberlake plays it like he’s in a throwaway skit. The guy can certainly do better, as is evidenced by THE SOCIAL NETWORK. Judy Punch (Who’s British! Who knew?) is very amusing as Diaz’s romantic rival, but again, you’ve seen this character before- the teacher who blathers on about the wonderfully innovative (and hideously over-baked) ideas she implements in her classroom, ideas no self-respecting teacher would ever, ever do. (You’re going to have to trust me on this.) When she realizes that Diaz is a threat, she becomes determined to the point of sociopathy, becoming a junior high teacher version of Wile E. Coyote.
The character actors fare a bit better. Phyllis Smith is very sweet as the obligatory dowdy friend of the hot chick, making an art out of saying out loud the inner monologue of not only the angel on her right shoulder, but also the devil on her left whenever Diaz makes a suggestion to shake up her life. John Michael Higgins is restrained and very funny as the put-upon principal, and with Jason Segel’s gym teacher, are the closest characters actually approximating human behavior in the movie.
BAD TEACHER is not a horrible movie. There are a few witty points in the movie, including a pair of shots involving a license plate, and some of Diaz’s dialogue, including the constantly changing reason she gives for her fiancé dumping her (her idea, of course). If you wanted to see it based on the ads, you probably should, but just remember that the commercials make it seem more like a biting satire than it actually is.
(By the way, I saw a theatrical trailer for LARRY CROWNE, which is longer than the ubiquitous commercial shown on TV, and with a different tone. There are several shots that give the viewer the impression that Roberts’ teacher character is about as interested in teaching as Diaz’s is.)
Review continues below Bad Teacher trailer:
The Art of Getting By
My upbringing was on the lower end of the bourgeois scale, so if the Legion of Decency condemned a movie, it was for a good reason. And if a movie was labeled an “art movie,” then I immediately knew that it was a good, if not great movie. When this type of worldview is in your blood, it’s hard to shake it loose. I believe I can judge a film on its own terms (I’m not sure BAD TEACHER wanted to be a great satire, but I still wish it were), but echoes of those pre-adolescent thoughts are still in my head. So yes, going into THE ART OF GETTING BY, I really did expect it to be this cinematic gem; I explained the rather empty feeling I had while watching it as my still not knowing why some people liked some movies and I didn’t.(I still have self-esteem issues, it seems.) Still, the emptiness continued.
To tell you the truth, I didn’t even know about this movie until the day before I saw it. Looking at the box office reports, you probably won’t get the chance to see it until it’s on DVD. You might enjoy it more than I did.
In a New York City where all kids call their parents (if they have them) by their first names, where high school principals learned everything they know from watching BOYS’ TOWN, and where there is no apparent drinking age, George (Freddie Highmore- another Brit!) a brilliant senior at an oh-so-exclusive prep school, “gets by” on the idea that “we’re born, we die, and everything in-between is an illusion.” He’s not suicidal. He just doesn’t apply himself to anything other than drawing fantastic doodles on anything made of paper. As he is skidding towards not graduating, he meets another senior, a girl named Sally (Emma Roberts), who is not that much into schoolwork herself.
Their friendship is platonic, but you know that that’s not going to last too long. He spends time with Sally, she introduces him to her friends, and they go to some of those no-checking-the-I.D. bars I mentioned earlier, but they both proclaim to each other (and anyone who’ll listen) that they’re just friends. Following the classic Boy Meets Girl…Tripartite Plot Pattern, George realizes that he actually is in love with Sally.
I wouldn’t mind of the movie followed the BMG…TPP, but there’s really nothing in the movie that obscures the fact that the plot is a series of clichés. Location filming in New York certainly helps, but it’s not glossy enough or viewed enough through a different lens that it takes our minds off the lack of originality. The characters are certainly better-drawn than in BAD TEACHER, but that’s not saying much. There is some nice work by the character actors. Elizabeth Reaser and Rita Wilson are good as irresponsible and concerned mothers, respectively, but both performances, though good, seem familiar. Blair Underwood does well as the concerned principal with a heart, but the character comes across as too good to be true (If this principal had gotten some advice from Avery Brooks’ principal from a certain movie, that would’ve been interesting). Jarlath Conroy is able to transcend the familiar as a rabid yet passionate Irish art teacher.
That leaves the bulk of the movie in the hands of Highmore and Roberts, and, argue with me if you will, but I just don’t think they’ve developed enough as actors yet to really carry this movie off. Highmore’s George is very blithe about his apathy, and that’s OK, and it’s irritating at times, as I imagine blithely apathetic people would be, but it doesn’t get a lot deeper than that. When George spends the first half of the movie announcing that he’s not in love with Sally, then confides to someone that he is, it’s news to us. There’s nothing simmering in his eyes, nothing that makes his denials ironic. I believe that Highmore is on his way to becoming a good actor, but he needs to absorb more of the world before he’s there.
Which applies even more to Roberts, I think. Her best acting is done with her eyes- her dialogue, although a lot of it is meant to be tossed off apathetically, doesn’t ring true enough in the deeper, more dramatic moments. Time will help her, too. Sadly, I watch more TV than I get out to the movies, and I think the bar that we have set for our younger actors has slipped downward over the decades. But I have hope. They do make an attractive couple, and at least they didn’t bore me.
It was probably unfair to link these two movies together, because each one serves a different purpose; one attempt to be a bawdy comedy, and the other a character study. I’d say check them out before I’d say to run screaming from them. The thing that I would recommend instead is to watch those two excellent movies about high school life mentioned at the beginning of this review, ELECTION and AN EDUCATION. You’ll feel like you’ve gotten one.
Bernie Jablonski teaches Mass Media and Film Study in the Fine Arts Department at Marian Catholic High School.