Positioning itself as the academic answer to Bad Santa, Jake Kasdan's Bad Teacher threatens a schoolyard tussle but refuses to hit below the belt. Writers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg dish up shameless misbehavior but never approach the depravity of the earlier film -- probably a smart choice for its box-office prospects, which are solid, but one that places a certain tier of shock-hilarity out of reach.
Cameron Diaz comes to the picture ready to offend. Her eyes have never been harder, and on the rare occasion that the script offers her a line like "I'm gonna suck your dick like I'm mad at it," she spits it out convincingly.
But for all her desk-stashed booze and inappropriately tight skirts, the movie offers Diaz a bland badness. She plays Elizabeth Halsey, a teacher desperate to land a rich husband and quit her job. Having decided that a fresh pair of breasts would help with that, she embarks on a series of petty moneymaking schemes to buy implants. She cajoles parents into paying her for "private tutoring," pawns the contents of Lost & Found and embezzles from a fundraising car wash made vastly more successful when she uses her cutoff-clad body as a chamois. (In a cameo, one gawking dad at the car wash is played by Kasdan's former collaborator, Paul Feig, whose Bridesmaids stole Bad Teacher's raunchy-women thunder a few weeks ago.)
Justin Timberlake is amusingly ingenuous as the wealthy but dimwitted newcomer Elizabeth hopes to seduce, though (with the exception of one bizarre dry-humping gag) the movie doesn't exploit his capacity for self-mockery as well as SNL has. The purposeful tortoise to Timberlake's peppy hare, Jason Segel steals scenes as the gym teacher who keeps flirting despite Elizabeth's many rejections.
The picture's most entertainingly unhinged element, though, is Lucy Punch, whose overachieving social studies teacher seethes with a goody-goody neurosis that threatens to erupt as she watches her colleague get ahead despite treating students like animals. Happily showing more restraint than she did as the lustful stalker in Dinner for Schmucks, Punch makes a highlight out of what could have been a tiresome role.
Concocting the inevitable redemption for a character as intentionally unsympathetic as Elizabeth is a challenge, and the script doesn't quite rise to it. It points in the right direction during a field-trip scene, where her contempt for a student's romantic cluelessness convincingly motivates an act of kindness.
But there are a couple of steps missing between that moment and the relative maturity with which Elizabeth eventually weighs the contest between the milquetoast millionaire and Segel's earthy shlub. Barely an hour-and-a-half long, the film could have spared a few minutes to sell her turnaround (such as it is). Having decided not to risk offending us, it could at least work a little harder to earn our affection.
Release date Friday, June 24 (Columbia)
Cast Cameron Diaz, Justin Timberlake, Lucy Punch, Jason Segel, Phyllis Smith
Director/executive producer Jake Kasdan
Screenwriters/executive producers Gene Stupnitsky, Lee Eisenberg
Producers Jimmy Miller, David Householter
Rated R, 91 minutes