From Tad Friend’s New Yorker profile of Anna Faris (which Jezebel.com reblogged under the headline “Hollywood Insiders Admit Hollywood Hates Women”) to the glass-ceiling-shattering pressure assigned to last month’s Bridesmaids (which has thus far outgrossed every previous Judd Apatow project since Knocked Up), a case could be made that 2011 will be remembered as the year the film industry (finally!) acknowledged its institutional misogyny, took steps to reverse it, and even learned that letting chicks into the comedy loop can actually end up being profitable. Yay, right?
If a new era is dawning, Bad Teacher reminds us exactly why change is so desperately needed. Directed by Jake Kasdan (an Apatow comedy family cousin whose last film was Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story) and scripted by frequent Office writers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, Bad Teacher focuses on a school year in the life of Elizabeth (Cameron Diaz), an aging party girl once destined to be a trophy wife, who instead ended up an incompetent middle school English teacher, managing to hold on to her job only via coy manipulation. Dumped by one wealthy fiancé, Elizabeth goes looking for another, and finds potential in Scott (Justin Timberlake), an heir who has altruistically signed up as a substitute teacher. Elizabeth must compete for Scott’s affections with her perky, perfectionist white swan—history teacher Amy (Lucy Punch)—while first fending off and then (surprise!) slowly succumbing to the advances of schlubby gym teacher Russell (Jason Segel).
The general argument holds that because studios produce so few films built around strong lady protagonists, Hollywood must hate women. But be careful what you wish for. Here, a “strong woman” means a lazy, lying, scheming, slutty, and obstinately materialistic one, whose sole redeeming virtue is her hard body (which the camera shamelessly ogles, as if the men watching need their hand held to look at an actress’s ass), who is so delusional that she thinks her ostentatious assholery is rock-star sexy, and whose delusions are essentially validated by narrative resolution.
At least Bad Teacher offers opportunities to ponder an evergreen pop-culture conundrum: At what point do professional performers with evident talent and a proven ability to make smart choices realize they’re trapped in a film that—due to lazy writing, style-free direction and visual design, and a general refusal to aim above the lowest common denominator—simply can’t be good? What compels someone like Justin Timberlake—so charismatically contemptible in The Social Network, so often a saving grace on SNL—to take a role centered on a cringe-worthy set-piece involving him dry-humping his real-life ex-girlfriend? Are actresses like Diaz and Punch really cool with punishing material based on the worst male-invented stereotypes of the way women deceptively control men and compete with one another? If they’re at all conscious of what they’ve gotten into, did they try to make it better, or did they submit to mediocrity because, you know, fuck it—the check cleared? Are they so far inside that they can’t possibly gauge what the fix they’re in might look like from the outside?
Jason Segel can, perhaps: He seems to have shown up on set carrying an enormous amount of weight, as if he’s hoping to not be recognized. In a role hardly larger than a cameo despite the fact that he’s ostensibly the male romantic lead, Segel never tries to hide that he’s only here to pay his mortgage—which makes him the most likeable presence on-screen. In just a handful of scenes, he comes close to saving the movie by injecting a much-needed dose of casual, naturalistic performance into the shtick, even as most of his dialogue consists of caustic asides and barbed flirting. Elizabeth’s sole character growth comes from her gradual understanding that she and Russell are soul mates of sorts, in that they’ve both figured out that sincerity is for suckers, and thus subsequently live to mess with people. That his agitation consists entirely of harmlessly sour, even charming verbal play directed at oblivious rubes, while she gets her kicks from mounting pranks with severe real-world consequences, is a moral discrepancy the film is content to leave unresolved.
You can’t say Bad Teacher doesn’t fulfill the basic promise of its genre; once the dust settles, boys and girls alike walk away with what they went looking for. But for Segel’s character, “victory” doesn’t seem like a good thing. Maybe this is a sign of progress after all: After a hundred years’ worth of romances in which “heroes” are rewarded for their unrepentant shittiness with the affections of an ever-patient beloved, maybe it’s the dude’s turn to get the raw deal.