"Bad Teacher" is Bad, but Not Necessarily Bad for Women

by Daniel Walber
October 18, 2011 4:45 AM
6 Comments
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This review was originally published on June 24, 2011. It is being reposted for the home video release.

It’s hard to watch a movie like “Bad Teacher” without evaluating where it falls in the debate over women in Hollywood, especially in this summer of heightened sensitivity to the problem. “Bridesmaids” was essentially appointed the representative of women at the box office, which would seem entirely ridiculous if there were even one more film on the docket for the next few months led by or geared towards women. But as Manohla Dargis pointed out recently, this is a summer without much of a female presence on the big screen. “Bridesmaids,” despite its success, is hardly enough to fix what is now an even more discussed deficiency in Hollywood.

In the context of the Anna Faris profile in the New Yorker earlier this year, Karina Longworth brings up the argument that is now occasionally made about 2011 as the year Hollywood will finally have to deal with its misogyny problem. Of course, 2009 was also supposed to be the “Year of the Woman,” what with “The Hurt Locker,” “It’s Complicated,” “Julie and Julia,” “Bright Star,” etc. and look where we are two years later. Which raises the question: what exactly is one supposed to make of “Bad Teacher”? Dargis wrote it off in her article earlier this month, sight-unseen, due to the admittedly obnoxious car-wash clip in the trailer, while Longworth makes her characterization of the film’s women as “the worst male-invented stereotypes” pretty clear. Yet I’m not so sure.

It seems to me that “Bad Teacher” sits in a strange and awkward place between “Bridesmaids” and “The Hangover: Part II,” to keep things in the framework of this summer. There’s really no way to look at it as an obvious step forward, in the manner of Kristen Wiig’s almost universally commended female-led comedy. Yet at the same time, it doesn’t marginalize its female characters, and I wouldn’t say that Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) is so problematic as to be considered a stereotype. It’s true that she’s an absolutely horrendous person, mean and manipulative, but is that enough?

Elizabeth is effective because she can manipulate men, which is the core of her strategy to get rich quick and never need a job ever again. She’s got it figured out in the very beginning, before she gets dumped by her rich fiancé (or, more accurately, by her impending mother-in-law). To fix the problem, she spends the next school year trying desperately to get breast implants and subsequently another exorbitantly rich gentleman. This is a film in which almost all of the men are idiots. Justin Timberlake plays the inane and idealistic substitute teacher/heir to a luxury watch fortune upon whom Elizabeth places her trophy-wife hopes. The school principal (John Michael Higgins) is easily distracted by dolphin figurines, and the embarrassing stupidity extends to her biker roommate (Eric Stonestreet) and a standardized testing official (Thomas Lennon).

Now, I acknowledge that a movie in which all men are incompetent doesn’t necessarily make for feminist filmmaking, and I wouldn’t argue that “Bad Teacher” is the kind of female-driven film that Hollywood so desperately needs. But it also can’t be so easily dismissed as being part of the problem. Elizabeth and her bitter rival across the hall, the aptly named Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch), are constantly at odds, but not in the shrieky and ridiculous style of “Bride Wars.” Along with Jason Segel’s gym teacher, the two are some of the only characters in the flick with any sense. While by the end you don’t exactly like either of them, it seems to be less sexist so much as it is the inevitable result of a film consciously about despicable people.

Finally, the bond between Russell (Segel) and Elizabeth has more to it than just the obligatory romance to finish of the movie. She doesn’t come around to being a good person, renouncing her manipulative ways, but instead finds someone who also seems to believe everyone else in the world is kind of incompetent. We like Russell a lot more than any of the other characters, primarily because Segel has plenty of charisma, but the one main difference between the two characters is that while she takes advantage of people, he expresses his mild misanthropy by laughing.

I think much of the debate really just derives from the movie’s mediocre comedy and uninteresting narrative. Timberlake’s character gets almost no good humor, despite how violently it’s attempted. There are so many missed opportunities, from the underuse of Molly Shannon to the somewhat unfortunate shying away from anything truly dark à la “Bad Santa.” You can tell that the screenplay is by the more mild-mannered writers of “The Office.” The car wash scene is in bad taste, but it’s more painful from the perspective of someone who likes good jokes than as a feminist.

Elizabeth isn’t so much a one-dimensional stereotype of the manipulative bitch as she is a one-and-a-half-dimensional product of bad writing. This may not be a feminist masterpiece, or even a “Bridesmaids,” but it’s hardly the worst of Hollywood’s problems; see the poster for the upcoming “Horrible Bosses” that mince no words by labeling Jennifer Aniston “maneater” right off the bat.

"Bad Teacher" is now on DVD and Blu-ray.

Recommended if you like: "Bad News Bears" (the 2005 remake); "What Happens in Vegas"; "The Office"



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6 Comments

  • Cinesnatch | August 7, 2011 8:50 AMReply

    Good article. On the level of an entertaining Bill Murray comedy of the 1980's, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. I probably liked it more than should be allowed. Is this a step forward/back for women? Probably neither. But, it does prove that a female movie star, when she plays to her strengths, can open a movie like any guy. Take that for whatever you want, but it's a step forward for Cameron Diaz--female.

  • Actor Tom Truong | July 1, 2011 1:07 AMReply

    After reading all these comments, I will have to go see this movie in theater to find out more.

  • Ken | June 30, 2011 4:49 AMReply

    I certainly can see your point about female driven cinema. Most films with a female lead are centered around inane rom-coms or schmaltzy feel good drama.

    On the other hand, while I haven't seen Bad Teacher (it will probably be Netflixed, honestly) , I enjoyed Bridesmaids. The reason I enjoyed Bridesmaids is it was a female ensemble comedy that had fearless women in it. By fearless I mean they weren't afraid to appear stupid, clumsy, awkward, and yes, even gross. If you look at most of the modern successful male comedies, you see men unafraid to be seen in an unflattering light, embarrassed, immature, and stupid.

    Most females in comedy want to be seen as "cute" funny. They will cutely cry when they are frustrated or upset, cutely stumble on their $500 high heels, or cutely giggle with their cute best friend while getting drunk to set up the inevitible hangover scene.

    Honestly, is there any comedic actress brave enough to do a scene like when Will Ferrell streaked in "Old School"?

  • Ty | June 29, 2011 1:52 AMReply

    I see where you're coming from... I would say then that the executives need to nut up and take a risk.

    I guess we don't know if the female-driven stories are any good (hell, most of the male-lead films these days have sucked beyond recognition), so I can't argue whether or not the studio execs are doing us a favor by not greenlighting the films (it's probably more about politics than creativity, anyways; that's what I meant originally, but never came back to correct myself).

    To be honest, I don't really notice the whole male-lead or female-lead controversy... all I see is a good or bad story. I've seen both fantastic male and female-lead films, and some really shitty ones. I'm sure if the subject continues to be brought up in public forums then we'll see more females in a lead role... but I'm not exactly up in arms about it at this point.

    I'm not against females in lead roles (and truthfully, I've seen plenty of films with females as the lead over these last few years, and loved them) and I recognize the female to male ratio as a lead is a little off, but (and probably because I'm a guy and "deluded' and whatever other bullshit nay-sayers might come up with) I'm not exactly up in arms over the whole thing. Thanks for the response though.

  • solid | June 25, 2011 6:50 AMReply

    @Ty, there are plenty (or at least some) writers writing female-driven screenplays. But they can't get financed. So the screenwriters are not the people who should be called out, the executives and financiers should be.

    As for why the absence of such films is a big deal, just for one moment try to put yourself in the other gender's slingbacks and imagine that almost all the films on offer were about women's experience, or had male characters as flat and unbelievable as the ones in Bad Teacher, or were full of conversations about relationships with no action or car chases or things blowing up.

    Women see almost no representations of themselves in studio films as three-dimensional characters with anything on their minds other than getting married (I think back wistfully to the days of Thelma and Louise or Erin Brockovitch). That's why it's a big deal.

  • Ty | June 24, 2011 11:16 AMReply

    I'm kind of confused why it's such a big deal that there aren't that many female-led films out there. I mean, I suppose I can understand the sentiment of unequal representation (I guess?), which could be coupled with your previous post about the lack of little people representation... however, obviously the people who should be called out are the screenwriters if you want to get down to the nitty gritty of it - but you can't tell someone to make their story about a female lead if their creativity takes them elsewhere.

    As for what's sexist, racist, etc., we could be here all day ripping apart films for the stupidest of inquiries as to their moral implications (i.e. Transformers and 'racist' robots). At the end of it all, we come to the realization that people just like to bitch and I doubt everyone will all be satisfied at one point or another.

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