Good role models are hard to come by — especially once Hollywood gets its hands on them. In the year that Bush gave us Iraq, Hollywood gave us Bad Santa. Now it’s Bad Teacher. What’s next, Naughty Nuns?
Of course, the film industry has been tweaking iconic targets since the Marx Brothers brought their particular brand of chaos to A Night at the Opera. In recent years, they’ve upped the ante. Now, filmmakers are encouraged to slap on an R rating, make sure the kids have to sneak in to watch, and let everyone else enjoy what Tony Cox’s Marcus character in Bad Santa calls, “An adult joke. For us, adults.”
With Santa Claus already trashed by Billy Bob Thornton and company, it was inevitable that someone would find another cherished cultural ideal, the teacher — beacon of knowledge and caring, glamorized in Stand and Deliver, Dead Poets Society and so forth — and put a caustic, foul-mouthed spin on it.
An irreverent, bad Santa vs. an irreverent, bad teacher. Only one can be the worst.
It’s a summer for the girls to be naughty for once. After so many films with guys dropping curses and getting caught in unseemly situations while the long-suffering females rolled their eyes in the background, Bridesmaids kicked us off with a new trend of girls behaving badly.
Bad Teacher is round two. Cameron Diaz tries to obliterate her reputation as golden good girl by starring as Elizabeth Halsey, an f-bomb-wielding gold-digger who has two weapons in her arsenal –sex and lies — and knows how to use them. When her fiancé cottons on and kicks her shallow butt to the curb, she’s forced to return to her position as a teacher at John Adams Middle School (JAMS).
Elizabeth’s only goal is to snag a new sugar daddy, and she’s certain she needs a boob job to turn her from an 8.5 to a 10. Instead of teaching, she shows DVDs, sleeps off a variety of substances, and schemes up ways to scrape up boob money and rope in rich, air-brained substitute teacher Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake).
The Defending Champion
Bad Santa was directed by the wonderfully twisted Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World, Crumb), written by Glenn Ficarra & John Requa, and executive produced by the infamous Coen brothers. Its pedigree shows. From the subject matter to the characters to the tone that colors a story of crime, murder and debauchery, the stamp of absurdist depravity is everywhere.
Billy Bob Thornton’s Willie is a good safecracker, but that’s about all he has going for him. He’s also a screw-up and a drunk with no real motivation to change. Every December, he pairs up with Marcus, and they infiltrate a mall as a Santa-and-elf combo. On Christmas Eve, they rob the mall and spend the rest of the year living off the profits. Not that one could call what Willie does living, really.
But then, a December in Phoenix brings him into contact with a picked-on kid (Brett Kelly), who manages to make an impact through Willie’s drunken haze.
Bad Santa is the antithesis of every holiday movie you might have cherished as a kid. It tends to relish in the despair of the season, drowning it in booze, cigarette smoke and general seediness and then hanging some garish decorations on it for good measure. Most of the characters are untrustworthy; most of the world sucks. But it saves itself from the brink by a few notes of hope and goodness that blossom slowly along the way.
Bad Teacher is not quite so downtrodden as that, mostly because the only truly “bad” person is Elizabeth — constantly drinking and drugging and manipulating everyone around her to get what she wants. We’re not generally called on to root for her behavior, and since the gag is pitting her acidic attitude against a world of generally naive, if somewhat dim-witted, people, the whole effect is a bit more fun in comparison.
The two films share several parallel characters. Both Santa and Teacher have a love interest who likes the protagonist for pretty much who they are: Lauren Graham as a sweet bartender with a fetish for Father Christmas, and an underused Jason Segel as a gym teacher who steps up as Teacher’s wryly grinning heart. Both have worthy comic foils: Bernie Mac, stealing scenes as the head of mall security tasked with digging up dirt on Willie; and Lucy Punch, also slaying it as neurotic super-teacher and perfectionist Amy Squirrel. Both films also have a hapless boss: store manager John Ritter — fantastically awkward and white-bread in his last film performance — and JAMS principal John Michael Higgins, who’s funnier than the script requires him to be.
Both Santa and Teacher also have a “friend” for our protagonists, but where Cox’s Marcus is a criminal mastermind who’s just as foul-mouthed as Willie and twice as cold-blooded, Phyllis Smith’s Lynn Davies is a walking, stuttering doormat for Elizabeth. There is a picked-on kid in Bad Teacher who helps Elizabeth discover what’s important, but he’s not nearly as integral as Kelly’s character –sweet, awkward, trusting, eager for a friend (even a drunk one). The Kid in Santa is more of a person than just a plot device.
So what about our antiheroes? Diaz’ hot bod is certainly nicer to look at than Thornton’s gaunt, grizzled physique. She’s supposed to be shallow and cynical, and she is; she’s supposed to find some depth, and she does. But it pops up too quickly at the end, and it’s difficult to care about her transformation when you never really liked her in the first place.
Thornton, on the other hand, knows how to play the pathos of Willie, to show those little sparks of caring building behind his boozy, hangdog eyes. The payoff, when it comes, feels more organic.
Bad Teacher was fun, with a supporting cast that earned every laugh. Gold stars go to perfectly shrill Punch and to Timberlake, who puts his comedic skills to good work as Delacorte. But there’s a sense of trying-too-hard, of winking at the audience every time a cuss word is dropped, like, “Did you hear that? Shocking, huh?” It’s a teenager trying to get a reaction from his parents.
Meanwhile, the debauchery of Bad Santa feels lived-in, a product of the characters and the situations instead of something tacked on for perceived novelty. It wasn’t as laugh-out-loud funny, but it has more heart than Teacher and better finesse at uncovering it beneath all the sludge.
If you want a fun comedy that’s a little thin on story, Bad Teacher isn’t a bad way to go, but for my money, I’d put Bad Santa in the stockings this year.