The bawdy middle school comedy "Bad Teacher" makes a nice summer bookend with "Bridesmaids." Each is centered around female rivalry, each is unapologetically crass, and each makes a feeble and unnecessary stab at celebrating the values of friendship and character, partly as a way to lurch the plot toward resolution and partly to avoid the "dark comedy" tag.
Here Cameron Diaz plays Elizabeth Halsey, a superannuated gold digger (maybe pushing 40) who is tossed out on her ear by her wealthy fiance and forced to return to her hated post at John Adams Middle School in suburban Chicago. Elizabeth is truly a bad teacher. She's typically too hungover to lead discussions and grade tests, so her syllabus runs to DVDs of classroom-based movies. "Stand and Deliver," "Lean on Me" and "Dangerous Minds" all make cameos.
Elizabeth's goal is to land a rich husband, and she's convinced she needs breast implants to speed her plan along. The plot takes shape as Elizabeth devises a series of schemes to raise money for her surgery. Along the way, she's haunted by her nemesis, the perky yet unhinged Amy Squirrel, played with gleeful abandon by English actress Lucy Punch. Amy is Elizabeth's rival for the affections of Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), a substitute teacher and, absurdly, the dimwitted scion of a European watchmaking dynasty. Rounding out the cast is the "good guy" - gym teacher Russell played by bro-comedy standby Jason Segel.
The movie is funny throughout - an improvement over a typical summer comedy, in which every laugh-out-loud moment can be strung together into a two-minute trailer. "Bad Teacher" suffers from a different sort of flaw - it tries to inject a dose of sweetness into what is essentially a caustic, mean-spirited tale. The secondary characters are simple types - a goofy, love-struck boy, a grade-grubbing girl, a neurotic, overweight teacher - and they exist to be the butt of jokes until it is convenient for them to become sympathetic.
"Bad Teacher" also may be an early entrant in a burgeoning trend of bad-economy comedies. Just as malaise-era movies including "Meatballs" and "Caddyshack" played class war for laughs, "Bad Teacher" and "Bridesmaids" feature a single female protagonist who has to rise above the degradations of penury by any means necessary - preferably hilarious.
TITLE: "Bad Teacher"
CREDITS: Directed by Jake Kasdan. Written by Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg
RATING: Rated R for brief nudity, drug use, sexual themes, language
RUNNING TIME: 92 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS