Monday, June 24, 2013

Bad Teacher 2?


I rarely expect much from Hollywood comedies anymore, and 2011's Bad Teacher was no exception. Teachers, after all, are a shamefully easy, "safe" target, on the receiving end of several of American society's animuses--toward intellectuals, toward government and government workers, toward organized labor (and especially public sector unions), toward liberals (which teachers are all incorrectly assumed to be by many a conservative detractor). And because of their vulnerability (as a not merely maligned, but ill-paid and relatively unprestigious profession) prone to be blamed for every failing of American education, real or merely perceived.

Still, there is no denying that the education system, like any other major institution, is not an unfit subject for satire. Our debates over curriculum and educational methods, from the math wars to standardized testing; the tension between the "convenient social virtue" society is prone to demand of teachers, and their needs and rights as human beings and professionals; the sociology of the classroom and the educational bureaucracy and the broader conditions under which educators work; the inequality between the schooling given the poorest and the most privileged--all this can plausibly make for a movie about something.1

Bad Teacher does not go this route, however.2 The failings of the titular figure, Elizabeth Halsey are purely individual and anomalous. She is simply a lazy, conniving "bad girl" who somehow got hired as a teacher, and somehow never got weeded out from among the flaky, naive do-gooders who are her colleagues--not that she has any desire to continue in this career. Her real aspiration is to marry money so that she can give up teaching and live in comfortable leisure. This leads to a pair of overlapping love triangles--the first between Elizabeth, substitute teacher Scott Delacorte and Elizabeth's colleague Amy Squirrel in the first, and the second between Elizabeth and Scott and gym teacher Russell Gettis--which have Elizabeth scheming to keep Scott and Amy apart, and buy herself breast augmentation surgery which she thinks will let her win over Scott (whose principal attraction is his coming from a wealthy family).

Of course, love triangles, ill-conceived money-making schemes and general bad behavior are standard comedic material, but even as "turn your brain off" entertainment I found the results underwhelming. The characters were one-note and often annoying (particularly Delacorte and Squirrel), the jokes mostly flat and ill-conceived (with Halsey's un-p.c. remarks merely seeming incongruous rather than funny, sounding as they did not like the un-p.c. remarks of her generation, but her cranky old grandfather's). And to top it all off, the film, wholly dependent on Elizabeth's consistent greed and mean-spiritedness for its few laughs, has her undergo a third-act change of heart so unconvincing that it feels like a parody of the kind of commercial hokum that director Jake Kasdan sent up in his earlier The TV Set (2006).

Nonetheless, the film was a hit as these things go, pulling in over $100 million domestically and another $115 million overseas (no Hangover, but still decent given the $20 million budget), and finding enough enthusiasm in Hollywood for a continuation that CBS has a sitcom based on the material premiering in the fall, and Sony has now announced a sequel.

I wonder about these decisions. It is far from clear to me that the concept has a hundred episodes in it, especially with the sexuality and language unavoidably toned down for network television.3 Equally the sequel seems a risky proposition, because it is bound to cost more--but not necessarily bound to sell more tickets. The margin between budget and gross is not all that high here, and I am not at all sure that this is an idea which left viewers begging for more (and indeed, the audience's affection does not seem to have been overwhelming). Also unhelpful is the conclusion of the first film, which had a (somewhat) reformed Halsey give up teaching to be the school's guidance counselor, so that she is no longer so bad as before, nor a teacher, complicating any continuation. Certainly it is difficult to picture the sequel doing well at the box office while the sitcom of the same name is airing--a potential competitor rather than complement, and perhaps a drag if it is not well-received.

If Hollywood really does mean to turn this one into a large, profitable franchise, those least powerful of Tinseltown's creative people, the writers, will have a lot of difficult work ahead of them.

1. As John Kenneth Galbraith put it in his classic Economics and the Public Purpose, the "convenient social virtue ascribes merit to any pattern of behavior, however uncomfortable or unnatural for the individual involved, that serves the comfort or well-being of, or is otherwise advantageous for, the more powerful members of the community. The moral commendation of the community for convenient and therefore, virtuous behavior then serves as a substitute for pecuniary compensation." This is "widely important for inducing people to perform unpleasant services." Nurses, for example, are expected to accept such commendation "as a partial substitute for compensation," while "such merit was never deemed a wholly satisfactory substitute for remuneration in the case of physicians."
2. In short, Bad Teacher proves to be pure Bucket Brigade, saying as much about education as Anchorman says about journalism and broadcasting, The 40 Year Old Virgin says about celibacy, or Step Brothers says about why people continue living with their parents well into adulthood--which is to say that not only does it say nothing, but it does not even appear to have been interested in saying anything. Instead the film is a showcase for the writers' and actors' trademark lines and gags (like the bizarre exclamations labeled "Ron Burgundyisms" on Urban Dictionary).
3. Premium cable, of course, would be another matter.

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