[Warning: Many spoilers ahead.]
With his irreverent wit, New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane doesn’t usually seem bound up in concerns about whether movies preserve a certain moral order. So the concluding lines of his Bad Teacher review took me by surprise:
In a line that will freeze the soul of Arne Duncan, Elizabeth is asked, “What went so wrong that you ended up educating children?” But that’s the wrong question. The correct one is: What have you done, children, to deserve Miss Halsey?
Granted, Lane’s trademark snark is still intact here. However, he seems to be making a semi-serious condemnation of the very lazy, very hungover, very bad teaching methods of Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz), the protagonist of Bad Teacher. It’s true that teachers in actual schools have serious responsibilities to their students; they have to ensure that kids learn and grow and survive field trips. Teachers in movies, however, operate under no such obligations, which is why Elizabeth gets to feel blasé about kids slinging coleslaw at each other. Anyway, as Bad Teacher notes, it’s not as if there’s a shortage of movies about good teachers. Elizabeth has her seventh-graders watch almost all of them—Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, Lean On Me—while she sleeps off the parties of the night before.
Elizabeth, as played with rock-star attitude by Diaz, is the raging id of any teacher who’s ever felt a twinge of frustration with students and co-workers (i.e., every teacher). She keeps drugs and alcohol in the false bottom of her desk drawer. She swears. She embezzles money from a car wash fundraiser. She writes “Stupid” and “Stupider” in red pen on her students’ essays, and teaches her class about To Kill A Mockingbird by throwing dodgeballs at them when they answer incorrectly. (To be fair, she also lets them throw dodgeballs at her when they get an answer right. “Just nothing in the face,” Diaz instructs them carelessly, tossing her blond mane to one side.)
Like Lane, Roger Ebert objects to Elizabeth’s character in his review of Bad Teacher. Comparing the film to the 2003 comedy Bad Santa, he writes:
Its bad person is neither bad enough or likable enough. The transgressions of Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) are more or less what you’d expect, but what’s surprising is that she’s so nasty and unpleasant. Billy Bob Thornton, as the Bad Santa, was more outrageously offensive and yet more redeemed by his desperation. He was bad for urgent reasons. Elizabeth seems bad merely as a greedy lifestyle choice.
While I agree with Ebert that Bad Teacher could have pushed Elizabeth to be even worse, I can’t help but wonder if at least a part of the resistance some critics felt to the film is in response to a woman behaving badly onscreen, without redemption or punishment. Jack Black played a similarly irresponsible teacher in School of Rock back in 2003, but critics didn’t seem perturbed by his bad behavior. (It’s also worth noting that some critics liked Bad Teacher a lot, including Manohla Dargis and David Edelstein.)
In fact, Elizabeth’s lack of likability is precisely what I think is kind of awesome about Bad Teacher: she doesn’t have to be likable! She doesn’t have a sick family member or a little kid who helps reveal her softer side; there’s no cute puppy waiting for her at home, and no sob story to win our sympathies–unless you count the fact that her fiancé quite justifiably dumped her for being a hustler.
In Tad Friend’s New Yorker profile of Anna Faris, a screenwriter explains that romantic comedies tend to make their heroines suffer in the first fifteen minutes so that audiences will be okay with rooting for them afterward. It’s depressing to think that our culture demands that women be brought low before they’re allowed to succeed. But Bad Teacher never tears Elizabeth down. If you don’t like her, that’s fine. If you do like her—and I did—it’s because you think she’s funny and a badass as well as, and partially because of, being nasty and unpleasant. In other words, you like her for the same reasons people like Bill Murray, or Spike on Buffy when he’s still evil, or any number of dudes who’ve built their reputations on snide remarks, sneers, and not caring. Would I want Elizabeth to be my friend or teach my (imaginary) kids? Of course not! But luckily this is movie-land, where Elizabeth does whatever she feels like and gets away with it, and that is really fun to watch.
Lane also makes a valid criticism of Bad Teacher‘s sexual politics; in the film, Elizabeth and her archnemesis Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch) compete for the affections of a rich and dorky new teacher (Justin Timberlake). Elizabeth’s main character motivation is to earn enough money to get breast implants so that she can land a wealthy husband. However, these motivations are supposed to be terrible. It’s not as if Bad Teacher is holding up Elizabeth as a role model. For anybody. Ever. And I can see the argument that a superficial woman trying to get together with a rich dude is hardly a cutting-edge or progressive plot point, but it’s worth noting that Elizabeth ends up choosing not to go through with either the implants or the rich dude. The movie doesn’t reprimand her for being a Bad Lady Who Does Wrong Things for the Wrong Reasons either, which is refreshing. She just decides that she’d rather be with a guy who makes her laugh. (That guy is Jason Segel, playing a charming, low-key gym teacher who digs Elizabeth not only because she’s hot but also because she’s pretty cool, if you can look past all the misanthropy).
I don’t want to oversell Bad Teacher; it’s not like this is the most hilarious movie of the year. I’d probably give it three stars out of five. But if you are a person who wants to see more female-led comedies where women get to break outside the Type-A workaholic box, then it’s a movie worth throwing some dollars at.
What we need in movies—among other things—is more representation of different kinds of people, including but not limited to women. We need movies about businesswomen who don’t have to choose between their love lives and their careers, about mothers whose aspirations for themselves go beyond their families and the front doors of their houses, about women who aren’t conventionally attractive but who somehow manage to find fulfillment in their lives without getting makeovers. We need movies about women who are diverse in age and ethnicity and class and sexuality, who are goofballs and hellraisers and space cadets and femme fatales and nerds and punks and slackers and action heroes. Bad Teacher is just one small step in this direction, but I’ll take one small step over none, every time.