Bad Teacher - Cameron Diaz, Jason Segel and Justin Timberlake
Bad Teacher - Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz), Russell Gettis (Jason Segel) and Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake) © 2011 Columbia TriStar

Nowhere near as offensively sinister as Bad Santa, as insanely outrageous as Bad Lieutenant, or as stupendously sophomoric as Superbad, the naughty Bad Teacher never feels completely committed to the dark side. Yet although it may be more “bad-lite” silly than consistently nasty, it’s still pretty funny. Even if it’s not all bad, in other words, it ain’t bad.

The best bad thing about it is casually skanky title character Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz, gleefully chewing scenery in nearly every scene). Elizabeth is the kind of utterly unprofessional instructor who thinks every day should be movie day. She reluctantly has returned to the profession after being dumped by a wealthy but wised-up husband-to-be, and hopes to find a rich replacement for him as soon as possible.

Enter new substitute teacher Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), a cartoonishly naive innocent who’s as dumb as he is dreamy, and who has family money to boot. Unfortunately, straight-arrow Scott is more attracted to straitlaced fellow faculty member Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch) than to Elizabeth. When Elizabeth finds out that Scott’s last girlfriend had a rather remarkable chest, she starts saving for a boob job that she hopes will entice him.

Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) © 2011 Columbia TriStar

Diaz is amusingly sleazy, cynical and smartass as Elizabeth, whose flaws include drinking on the job, smoking dope in the school parking lot and drugging an education official so she can steal a standardized test. Her seductively sudsy efforts to boost profits at a school car wash are believably sexy enough to make a cop in a cruiser cause a collision. Diaz also manages to pull off a mid-movie turnaround, when Elizabeth transforms from apathetic bad influence into intimidating hardass in hopes of winning a performance bonus.

The movie’s most over-the-top scene involves Scott dry-humping Elizabeth in a motel during a field trip, earning Timberlake big points for being game enough to make those kinds of faces onscreen. That’s about as close as the movie gets to Farrelly brothers or Apatow-style humor.

Timberlake and Punch play their characters with more camp than conviction, making for a clash of styles that’s sometimes a problem. It’s not as if Diaz is doing documentary-style drama, but hers is the only performance that’s a bit more elevated and edgy than what you’d expect from a Saturday Night Live skit. (Speaking of which, actress Phyllis Smith plays a meekly soft-spoken teacher who looks and acts so much like a heftier version of former SNL cast member Molly Shannon it’s eerie.)

Screenwriters Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, who wrote several episodes of the US version of The Office, resist the urge to go totally mushy and message-y at the end. Director Jake Kasdan could have made things zippier and more visually interesting (his Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story was an underappreciated comedy classic), but the finished product is good enough. Even if it’s not entirely bad enough.

[Rating: 3]

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer. More by James Dawson