Review - Breasts and tests amuse in Diaz comedy with a subversive heart

17th June 2011 at 01:00

Bad Teacher

In cinemas nationwide

Two teachers are sitting opposite one another in the school canteen. "When I started teaching. I thought I was doing it for all the right reasons," the first one says. Her friend nods sympathetically. "Y'know: short working hours, long vacations."

This is Elizabeth Halsey, reluctant middle-school teacher. Played by Cameron Diaz, the anti-heroine of Bad Teacher does exactly what the film says on the tin. She turns her back on crying pupils; she shows films instead of delivering lessons; she takes quiet swigs from desk-drawer whisky bottles.

The day job is a way of passing time until she is able to find and marry someone suitably wealthy. Enter Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), painfully earnest supply teacher and heir to a family fortune. The way to ensnare him, Elizabeth decides, is to raise $10,000 for a new pair of breasts. Scott is undeniably supportive. "I believe in free choice for everyone - whatever makes them happy," he says. "Except abortion, obviously."

Less supportive is Russell (Jason Segel), the sardonic gym teacher. "Your tits are fine," he says. "I like your tits. Ask my roommate."

Elizabeth discovers that the school district offers a $5,700 bonus for the teacher whose class scores highest in standardised tests. And so she embarks on a mission to teach to the test that would make even the most league table-conscious head proud.

"Stupid!" she writes in red ink on one pupil's mock test. "Stupider" she writes under the next question. It is a freedom surely no teacher can fail to envy.

Ultimately, in pursuit of high test scores, she resorts to seduction, theft, lies and blackmail. Again, it is hard not to imagine someone, somewhere, viewing this as an instructional video.

It is, however, the scenes between Diaz and Segel that really sparkle: the meeting of two minds that aspired to something great, and somehow ended up teaching in a suburban middle school.

"See those hoops," he tells her, as they lie in the gym, smoking pot. "They weren't there when I came to this school. They were somewhere else. I moved them there."

Refreshingly, given the ultra-sincere - and often borderline caricature - teachers filling its staffroom, the film's moral code is firmly in favour of those who play the system. Being a good teacher, it seems to be saying, is not about earnestness, creativity or love of the job. Neither, however, is it about test scores. This is Hollywood, after all: it's about heart. And decent breasts.

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