We don’t get out to see movies as often as I’d like. They’re really expensive these days, especially for a family of four, and times are tough. The other day my wife suggested that for about the price of us all going to see an evening movie (and having snacks and sodas, natch), we could hop in the car, drive to Cocoa Beach, and spend a night in a a hotel there.
But enough about how expensive movies are. Suffice it to say that they’ve come to be an all too rare treat, which makes it especially horrible when you finally make it out to the theater, only to have your money and time wasted by lazy, reprehensible, ugly storytelling.
Enter Bad Teacher.
Now I usually have a policy of never seeing movies about teaching or teachers. They tend to feed into one of two misconceptions people often to hold about my profession: that we have a sweet work schedule made up of short days and long vacations, tenure, and autonomy, or that there is a magical way of reaching every single student, and that all it takes as a teacher is wanting it badly enough and being willing to put in a lot of montages, and there isn’t a single student whose life you will fail to change, massively. There’s a longer rant coming, but I’ll save it for another day.
This time I made an exception because a couple of teachers I know assured me that it was a really funny movie. (By the way, no, we didn’t take the kids to see this R-Rated flick.) Well let’s dispel that myth first: all (both) the funniest bits were in the trailer, so I really didn’t need to spend eleven bucks to see them again. There were a handful of kinda funny gags, most of them not being used to their best potential, and that was about it.
My objection to this movie is not that it’s demeaning to teachers. It is demeaning, though. More than any movie I can remember seeing. Okay, I get it, it’s called Bad Teacher, so it’s hardly surprising that the Cameron Díaz’s character is, well, a bad teacher. But where in this movie is there a good teacher–or even a teacher who is a good person? Díaz’s character is lazy, conniving, shallow, selfish–the list goes on. But what about Justin Timberlake’s character? Flakey and dishonest. Professes love and devotion to one woman, but is easily lured away if that woman is but absent. A ridiculous, chaste horndog. Jason Segal’s character? A big goofy kid in a man’s body, he’s the closest thing we have, but he’s also a crass, lazy drug abuser who is not capable of doing the tasks he demands of his students. And, you know, he’s shallow enough to take Díaz’s character into his life the minute she comes to her senses, knowing what an otherwise despicable person she is. Lucy Punch’s character? At first it seems like her biggest flaw is being too dippy even for middle school, but since this movie features no real character arc for Díaz, they have to resort to making Punch’s character more repugnant as the movie goes on, because that’s the only way anybody could possibly root for the reprehensible title character to win the day. So as the movie goes on, Punch’s character shows her own conniving, thieving side. Phyllis Smith’s character? Okay, she actually seems like a decent enough person, as far as I can remember, but she’s comically weak-willed and a total follower. If you’ve seen the film, can you imagine that someone like her can actually be good at teaching?
So yeah, this film is a total hatchet job. Somebody involved with writing this must have had a deep-seated hatred for their educational experience and their teachers as a group, to have been unable to show even a single background character, a foil, who was actually a decent person doing a decent job. But like I said, that’s not my problem with this movie. My problem is the storytelling is lousy, and storytelling is something I happen to care about a lot.
For the most part, it comes back to the point I already made, but now I’m not looking at it as an affront to teachers, but from a writer’s perspective–and from the perspective of a consumer of stories. If this were some sort of dark, nihilistic drama, I might could understand creating a story without a single character that one could cheer for. But this isn’t that kind of movie. This is supposed to be lighthearted–if raunchy–fare.
This isn’t an objection to flawed–even deeply flawed–protagonists. But if you’re going to write a story with a flawed protagonist, then I need to see a reason to follow them on their journey, for one thing. Some early sign that the person if flawed, but has potential. She is trying and failing to get better. Or she’s not trying to get better, but in the midst of her despicableness we get the occasional surprising good deed, that shows us this person has some unsuspected kernel of decency inside. In Bad Teacher, we get none of that. In the first eighty-five minutes of this movie, there isn’t a sign that Díaz’s character has a single honorable inclination, ever. No evidence that she’s capable of seeing anybody as other than a means to an end, an obstacle, or something to be ignored. (She’s not even sexually attracted to the men she seduces; she’s just looking for her sugar daddy.) (Which brings up another point. The only thing saving this movie from being deeply misogynistic is the fact that it’s actually deeply misanthropic.)
Another thing I need, ideally in any protagonist, but certainly in a flawed one, is some kind of character arc. In this movie, there isn’t one. There is the most slap-dash attempt to affix a casual wave at character growth in the last seven minutes, when Díaz has her shining moment: She tells a sensitive kid that no girl will ever like him in middle school or high school, so he should wait for college and seize his window when it comes. And then she gives him her bra. Yes, seriously. That’s Díaz’s high-water mark in human decency in this film. While delivering her lecture about how middle school girls are inherently shallow–well, the pretty ones, anyway–she realizes that she has been shallow herself, and stops chasing after Timberlake. (After, of course, ruining his love life and Punch’s career.) She doesn’t actually make good for any of the terrible wrong she has done. The evidence of her growth as a human being is that she finally acquiesces to the nearly-likable guy who’s been hitting on her nonstop for an entire year.
Tell me again what the pro- in protagonist stands for?
So I wonder about the 44% of people who, according to Rotten Tomatoes, didn’t think this was a terrible movie. (It’s worth noting that the number goes down to 26% when you only look at the “top critics.”) I can’t imagine anybody thought any of these characters was somebody they’d ever like to spend time with (except possibly in bed). So all I can imagine is folks liked it despite the uniformly miserable characters, because they thought it was funny.
Frankly, it wasn’t that funny.
But even if it was–do these people not want a comedy to work as a story first and foremost? When they go see a movie–especially a lighthearted one–are they not looking for characters they can get behind, somehow changing their lives for the better?
Nowhere do I feel more out of touch with my culture than when it comes to filmic comedy. The things I find funny don’t meet with a ton of acclaim, and the things other people find funny I just don’t get.