Indulge in Subversion with Cameron Diaz in “Bad Teacher”

NOTE: Written for a class assignment where we had to choose a “bad” movie with the following criteria: 1. Score 50% or less on Rotten Tomatoes. 2. Not be a “box office hit.” 3. Not be a “cult classic.” 4. “Not be a popular “cult” film. 5. Movie must have some redeeming quality that, even though it is “bad,” it is still worth watching.

Teacher movies inspire, and invoke a range of emotions.

You feel the teacher’s frustration entering a classroom of degenerates, cheer when the teacher gets the class to sit down, shut up and take notes, rally behind the class when they stand up against administrators who don’t understand them, cheer again when the class has overcome whatever obstacles life has thrown at them, and generally walk away feeling good.

Whether it’s the triumph over circumstance and skeptical administrators in Stand and Deliver, a belief in themselves to put grades over hoops in Coach Carter,seizing each day by going after what you want in Dead Poets Society, or rallying around a tough principal who has brought much needed change to a failing school in Lean on Me, you feel gratified at the end. The struggle was worth it. The teachers changed the hearts and minds of students, parents, and administrators. The students succeeded, the parents love the new kids they’ve become, and the administrators take pride in the accolades dumped on their schools.

Or such has been teacher movie standard, and a script that practically writes itself, like Finding Forrester, Freedom Writers, and countless others.

Every now and then a movie comes along to buck the trend somehow, like melding two unrelated themes into one in movies like Kindergarten Cop or Renaissance Man, and casting them perfectly.  Arnold Schwarzenegger as a cop is easy to digest. As an undercover cop playing a kindergarten teacher? That is simply brilliant. Putting Danny DeVito on a military base to teach literature, also brilliant. Both still fall within the teacher movie standard, however. Students learn life lessons, and gain confidence in themselves. You still walk away feeling good at the end.

School of Rock steps further outside the teacher movie conventions, and twists them. Dewey Finn, played by Jack Black, is not a teacher by vocation, trade, or any acceptable standard. He is an unemployed wanna-be rockstar hustling his way to covering his share of the rent until he answers a phone call intended for his roommate. A prep school is looking for a short term substitute teacher, and Finn jumps at the chance. Substituting is easy money since he just has to show up, do little work, and collect a paycheck that will cover his rent. He soon learns that he can mold his class into the band he needs to compete in a Battle of the Bands competition. And his hustling skills make him adept at getting around administrative hurdles. That is where the twist on the teacher movie ends, however. By the end of the movie, the kids have discovered things about themselves, gained confidence, changed their parents minds, and all is forgiven.

The question springs naturally: is there a movie that breaks teacher conventions?

Yes, there is such a movie.

Though it received a 44% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, earned only two stars from Roger Ebert who said that it “inspires more than distaste for its lead character” while Paul Asay on the review site Plugged In calls it “a bad movie: bad artistically, bad ethically, bad to its cinematic core,” Bad Teacher is worth watching.

Relative to Kindergarten Cop, Renaissance Man, or even School of Rock, it does more than simply break the conventions of teacher movies; it subverts them.

The subversion starts immediately with the introduction of Elizabeth Halsey, played by Cameron Diaz. As The New York Times put it, “you first see her tucked into a dreary field of other middle-school teachers, standing out like a yellow rose. With thorns,”that reveal themselves with the look on her face as she receives a $37 gift card to Boston Market as a going away present. The thorns only sharpen as she gives a short speech on how she’ll miss her students and wishes she had gotten to know her fellow teachers better, which are interspersed with cut scenes that demonstrate the opposite. It’s clear that, unlike Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver, Halsey merely doesn’t want to teach; she has absolutely no interest in the profession.

The point is hammered home when she confesses to coworker Lynn, in one of the best scenes of the movie, that her full time job “is finding a guy who’s going to take care of me.” Yes, that’s right. With a new school year starting, she is on the hunt, and believes she needs “a new pair of tits” because “it’s so hard to compete against these Barbie Doll types.” Lynn, played by Phyllis Smith from U.S. version of “The Office,” is oblivious to the insults, mired as she is in her own insecurities and indecisiveness, while also portraying a sense of admiration for Halsey.  She thinks Halsey doesn’t need breast implants, and wants to skip orientation like Halsey but doesn’t want to break the rules. Whereas Halsey is sure and confident in herself, Lynn has work to do, and the look Halsey gives her as she debates going to orientation at all suggests Halsey wants to help. Just as quickly, though, the look is gone and Halsey is again laser-focused on herself.

Now, in case you doubt her reasons for breast implants, writers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg remove all doubt by introducing new substitute teacher Scott Delacorte, played by Justin Timberlake. Delacorte, Halsey quickly learns, is heir to a rich family of watch manufacturers, and that he just got out of a relationship with a woman who “has a big heart.” Shown a picture, you see what Halsey sees: big breasts. All that stands between Halsey and marital bliss to Delacorte is $10,000. Never mind that a watch manufacturing heir is a substitute teacher, suggesting he doesn’t work in the family business and may not inherit much. Never mind that Delacorte is an indecisive schmuck, as illustrated when talking about a shark, which “are majestic” but “so ferocious.” Halsey sees a guy is going to take care of her, and all she needs is $10,000.

Wait. Time out.

What single teacher do you know with an extra $10,000 laying around?

Exactly.

Now that Halsey has a mission, subversion moves front and center.

It starts with parent-teacher night when a parent inquires about showing movies in class instead of preparing the kids for the state exams. Those movies she has shown, by the way, are Stand and Deliver, and Lean on Me, a sly nod to teacher movie standard bearers. Halsey deftly dismisses the parent’s question under the guise of “using a number of multimedia tactics” in the classroom, when the truth is she is either too high or too hungover to teach. That she gets away with showing movies speaks to her ability to sweet talk her way out of anything.

It seems as if she has succeed in sweet talking her way out parent-teacher night, too, and it’s not hard to understand why. However, Halsey approaches parent-teacher night with outward disdain instead of putting a smile on her face and faking it.

She wants to leave more quickly than the parents.

And then a father of one of the students approaches her, ignores the fact that she doesn’t know his son’s name, blatantly hits on her, and then give her money for “incidentals.” A light bulb goes off in Halsey’s head, and she’s soon using that sweet talking charm on all the parents, convincing them that, for a little extra cash, she can pay a extra attention to their kids, making sure the kids do well in her class. She plays up the “poor teacher” angle as well, easily garnering sympathy, and parents are all too willing to fork over money to help.

Money, as you know, is always tight at schools. With the exception of perhaps Dead Poets Society, which takes place at a private boarding school, there is some monetary tension in teacher movies.

An early scene in Stand and Deliver, for example, has teachers sitting around a table in the teacher’s lounge, convincing themselves they can do no more because there is no more money since the school is failing and will most likely close at the end of the year. There is no more money so there is no incentive to do more, and the teachers feel as if they can do no more. Except Escalante, who states he thinks he can do more, and teach his students more. And all without cajoling parents into donating money to his class.

Whereas Stand and Deliver shows what happens when teachers put their minds to helping their students succeed, Bad Teacher subverts that standard by illustrating the antithesis of teaching: selfishness. Halsey works on her hustle, much like Finn from School of Rock, to get what she wants. Collecting cans, taking lost and found items to the thrift store, pocketing money from the student car wash, whatever she can do to make money to put towards her breast surgery, Halsey does it. And, like Finn, she eventually realizes that she can leverage her students to achieve her goal.

After a night at a bar watching the teacher band, Period Five, perform, where Timberlake pokes fun at himself as a “first time song writer” and performs one of the worst songs to grace the big screen, Halsey gives Lynn a ride home. Halsey is ranting about how her rival, Amy Squirrel, played by Lucy Punch, “got” Delacorte when Lynn drops the fateful nugget of information: the teacher whose class scores the highest on the state exam gets a $5,700 bonus. That is more than half of what Halsey needs for her breast surgery.

Now the real fun begins.

Whereas teachers in other movies praise their students, work to inspire them, make jokes in an effort to turn a boring topic into something entertaining, and otherwise encourage their students to succeed, Halsey doesn’t put up with that bullshit. She does a complete 180, declaring “recess is over,” and announcing a quiz on the first 100 pages of To Kill a Mockingbird the next day.

She gives them a short answer quiz, and in another great scene, proceeds to grade them in a manner that is every teacher’s dream. “Atticus is a good lawyer, because he’s a good person, who’s a lawyer,” reads one answer, and they only get worse, prompting Halsey to write comments like ““Stupid. Stupider,” “Wrong,” and “Are you fucking kidding me?” No teacher, no matter how poorly the student has answered a question, writes “Are you fucking kidding me?” on a student paper, and expects to still have a job. Likewise, no teacher would throw the exams in the trash and call the class pathetic. Nor would any teacher take the class to the gym, and hit them with dodgeballs when they give an incorrect answer to a question.

Remember, though, Bad Teacher isn’t your typical teacher movie.

Halsey isn’t out to inspire her students, make them believe they’re better than they are. She’s out for the $5,700 bonus to help cover the cost of her breast implants. She understands she needs some additional insurance to get that bonus, and finds it on the back of the previous year’s state achievement test. Why bother guessing what’s going to be on the test and teaching that to your students when you can fake being a reporter, play the racists card, get the testing administrator drunk, steal his key, and make a photocopy of the test itself?

Why not do exactly what every teacher wants to do?

Such is the beauty of subversion in Bad Teacher.

Halsey does what every teacher wants to do, but no teacher will do because they value their job, their integrity, and all the things you expect a teacher to instill in their students. Halsey, and Bad Teacher, subvert standard teacher movie conventions, and in the process, extend a middle finger to the teaching and education profession. It makes for a perfectly good “bad” movie, and one that everyone can identify.

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