The similarities between Bad Teacher and the beloved 2003 Yuletide black comedy Bad Santa begin with the titles, and they don’t end until Bad Teacher does. Both films take the form of curdled dark comedies about raging misanthropes who abuse their positions of authority—or at least their power over small children, since drunken mall Santas and Chicago’s public-school teachers both lack real power—to engage in criminal schemes. And both films are fundamentally redemption comedies about anti-heroes who might ultimately be beyond redemption. Bad Teacher isn’t subtle in its “borrowing” from its clear inspiration, but it is savvy.
In a performance that plays to her strengths as a ballsy, vulgar physical comedienne, Cameron Diaz stars as a hard-living, mean-spirited gold-digger biding her time as a teacher until her marriage to a foppish rich man frees her from a life of semi-honest labor. But when her wealthy fiancé dumps her, she’s forced to scramble for a plan B. She sets her sights on an exquisitely unselfconscious goober: a wealthy substitute teacher, played by Justin Timberlake with just the right note of utterly unearned geek bravado. Meanwhile, charming slacker gym teacher Jason Segel patiently waits for Diaz to get over herself enough to appreciate his humble charms, and to a lesser extent, get the fake breasts she’s stealing and scheming to raise money to buy.
Director Jake Kasdan hasn’t had much luck commercially with three fine comedies (Zero Effect, The TV Set, Walk Hard) that didn’t find cult audiences until they flopped in theaters, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that Bad Teacher’s tone is broad, crowd-pleasing, and unapologetically commercial. For a mainstream studio comedy, it’s agreeably nasty and dotted with moments of cruelly satisfying cultural specificity, like a hippie teacher played by Freaks And Geeks’ Dave “Gruber” Allen rocking out in middle-of-the-road ecstasy to Shawn Mullins’ “Lullaby,” or Timberlake’s pride in boldly exploring the world of ethnic cuisine by going to an Ethiopian restaurant. But Bad Teacher is really Diaz’s show as much as Bad Santa belonged to Billy Bob Thornton. Teacher underutilizes a smartly cast-against-type Timberlake and the perpetually winning Segel, but Diaz ultimately earns a rooting interest in the unlikely redemption of her scheming opportunist. Considering how utterly repellent she is in the film’s misanthropic early scenes, that’s an impressive feat.