Sporting a title that does double duty as a plot synopsis, Bad Teacher wastes no time in establishing Elizabeth (Cameron Diaz), its anti-heroine, as a foul-mouthed corrective to the inspirational educators in movies like Stand and Deliver and Dangerous Minds (both of which she shows to her students in lieu of actual lessons). Trapped by circumstance in America’s most thankless and underpaid profession, this monstrous narcissist spends most of her time dreaming up ways to fleece everyone in sight, convinced that she needs a pair of fake boobs to seduce an improbably wealthy new substitute (Justin Timberlake). All the while, she has to fend off not only a bunch of mewling kids seeking guidance, but also the school’s schlumpy wiseacre of a gym teacher (Jason Segel), who couldn’t more clearly be Elizabeth’s sour soul mate.
Unapologetically fashioned in the likeness of 2003’s cult comedy Bad Santa, Bad Teacher lacks the courage of its predecessor’s misanthropic convictions, though it boasts a few memorably outrageous gags of its own (including the creepiest bout of dry-humping in cinema history). The genius of Bad Santa, after all, was that it served as a vicious parody of sappy Hollywood films in which a mildly incorrigible protagonist learns valuable life lessons—precisely the kind of earnestness to which Bad Teacher, for all its flirtation with filth, inevitably succumbs. There’s still some fun to be had watching an ordinarily sweet-faced actress like Diaz indulging her inner reprobate, but black comedy only truly delivers when you can sense that the folks who made it are playing for keeps.