Bad Teacher: Cameron Diaz as Monster Lite

Bad Teacher is not going to save anybody’s life.  Cameron Diaz as our very bad teacher is mostly a tiny monster. She tells kids they suck, she steals from the school car wash, and she strangely comes up with the idea to rub poison ivy on another teacher’s apple.  And this is extreme stuff for us American audiences. For all the gross-out humor of Bridesmaids, we still don’t like to see our lady protagonists getting ethically nasty.  I think of what the Brit version of Bad Teacher would be and get simultaneously high, and a case of the hives.  It would be rough. A funny, wickeder version of Notes on a Scandal.

At it’s best, Bad Teacher is a takedown of the Teach for America squeak and bounce, with a healthy knock to the mishmash of generic hoopla we expect of the “nurturing” professions.   At one point, Diaz’s Craigslist roommate comes home to find her eating a corn dog. “I thought you were going out with all the other nurses,” he says. “I’m not a nurse,” she says. “I thought you were a nurse.” More of this, please.

The trope of Diaz not nurturing her students ultimately becomes stale. She beats them, she smokes up in the school parking lot, and that was fun, but I was hoping for darker.  I was hoping this would lean more towards Bad Santa, if we were going to be badding up at all.  This might also be because I have been stuffing my eyeballs with Nighty Night lately, which has perhaps fucked up my expectation of what bad truly is. This is also the first movie I have seen with an extended dryhumping scene.

Two key markers are becoming standby shorthand for a lady movie where the ladies are “real people.” The first is that she has to eat something with a high caloric content without glamour or lust. She has to eat in the way that people do when they are alone.  Think Annie and her cupcake in Bridesmaids. In Bad Teacher, Diaz and her cheeseburger get some strange scene time as she drives to seduce a school district wonk.  Is it narratively important that she eats a cheeseburger on her mild drive? No. Is it funny to watch a fit Diaz eat a cheeseburger? If you think eating cheeseburgers are funny.  It was a strange way to spend 4 seconds, but it was so memorable. The earlier mentioned corn dog had a similar effect. I can’t tell if it’s because we’re unused to seeing women blandly eat without it being a large statement (she’s healthy cuz she eats! Cute because she doesn’t hide her appetite!) or so typical (woman laughing alone with salad). Women are either supposed to have orgasms when they eat cupcakes, or cry in the bathroom about it. Here, they just eat, and, you know, drive.

No orgasms, either. The other marker is the very bad sex scene, usually one that is good for the guy and atrocious for the gal.  Again, anything with Annie and John Hamm in Bridesmaids, and Justin Timberlake’s dedicated dryhumpery here.  The joke usually lands on the stupid, offensive, completely selfish things the men say during sex, while the women are slightly winking at the audience as they contort and romp. They’re with us, telepathing “this guy is a real piece of work,” as they wait for him to finally come. Both scenes are used to announce that the dude is not part of the happy ending for our protagonists.  Neither woman tells off the dude or quits the very bad sex even though he is not listening to her, or worse, tells her to stop talking. The good news is the audience aligns with the woman’s experience in the exchange, even if it assumes that putting up with mid-coitus bullshit is normsville. By making fun of the man’s blindness to his partner, we all actually see and listen to the lady character’s experience.

As a tangent, can you imagine this same dynamic for a great sex scene? In both these movies, the good sex is skipped over, either as a fade out or as an untold part of the story. This might be more because bad sex is easy to define, while good sex is ridiculously specific, especially for women, and thus harder to write.  In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, where the bad sex was all very funny and very much from a male POV (the woman who kept saying ‘Hi,’ etc.) but the good sex was downright cliche’ (looking into each other’s eyes, meaning). 

The idea of seeing a good sex scene between Diaz and Jason Segel, her other love interest, is a little bit iffy. How do you keep us aligned in the woman’s experience without making it an over the top ode to a woman’s pleasure? And bad sex keeps the story focused on the protagonist, whereas good sex realigns the audience with the couple. And, the nitty gritty of bad sex is funny. The grit of good sex, is just, well, blushy. We already assume women are blushy.  In these movies where the lady protagonists are trying to claim all three dimensions they have to disregard and work against the already well-mapped soft spots of traditional femininity.  Thus, the dryhumping.

As for Bad Teacher, it’s a mildly good excuse to sit in the dark. One thing it does well is skew dialogue into natural conversation. Characters often say the obvious thing, but in a real and unpackaged way. When Diaz gives helpful dating advice that leads to two men hitting on her sidekick (Phyllis from the Office), Segal says “Wow, that worked superfast.” It could be flat, but it twists enough that when he says it, it lands as a real sentence in the world.  Also, Segel and Diaz seem to have a real chemistry, and while the plot gets stupid, and there are lots of loose ends, it doesn’t become a carnival like Spring Breakdown. I think that means we might be getting somewhere.

Yours,

CF

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Sloppy Jane

Dear Millicent,

Because the Nu woman is such a hard label to talk around (I say it out loud and it seems to mean nothing), I am renaming her the Sloppy Jane. No, the Sloppy Jane is not a new sexual position, but it is still for the advanced.  The Sloppy Jane is that rare female protagonist who is as flummoxed, average, and compelling as men are portrayed, and who usually has a messy life that is full of unguarded or foibled moments of humanity.

And, as we have talked about before, the Brits are really good at writing Sloppy Janes, and the Americans aren’t. I would even argue that the Brits are so good at it that they have created an overdose of the Sloppy Jane.  Julia Davis’ Nighty Night was recommended to me by commenters here, and I crown Davis The Uber Jane. She is one of the most, perhaps the most, uncomfortable and unlikeable women I have ever seen take on television. She finds a panty liner in shrimp salad that she is serving to guests at dinner, and simply picks it out before serving more.  Her dog poops on her kitchen floor, and she blames the turds on her wheelchair bound nemesis. She is as over the top as a classic Sloppy Joe, David Brent for example, but she is much much harder to excuse.

In 2004, The Guardian, in an article title “The Witches” wondered if Davis had changed sitcoms forever:

It wasn’t until Absolutely Fabulous unleashed upon the world Edina and Patsy – especially Patsy – that we really had a proper introduction to women behaving badly.

Yet no one is a patch on Jill. In evolutionary terms, she is a huge leap forward, a feat of genetic engineering. The Office might have popularised the comedy of embarrassment, but Nighty Night has moved it on. The monstrous woman has arrived. Best be nice to her.

Also of interest, several female comedians are asked their take on Davis’ character “Jill”, and several reference the impossibility of an unlikeable protagonist until Gervais’ The Office. The article is a fun read, especially for Catherine Tate’s take on unattractive characters in comedy:

Apart from Friends, comedy is rarely glamorous. You’ve got to compromise your dignity in some way for it to work and what’s nice about grotesque characters is that they display a lack of vanity. I think women now are not frightened to appear unattractive, as unpleasant characters. Characters work best when they’re a mixture of recognition and exaggeration and the funnier you can look within the realms of naturalism, the better. It’s through the mouths of these grotesques that you can get away with things you couldn’t otherwise. I do a character of an old woman who says things that, on a script in black and white, would be unacceptable. That these characters don’t believe they’re wrong is what makes it funny while taking the edge off the offence.

But that article was in 2004. Nighty Night went off the air in 2005 (though Darren Star is/was producing a US version). What monstrous Sloppy Janes are still out there, especially on this side of the pond?

Here’s my working list, with high hopes to add more. They range from empathetic three-dimensionality, to intense grotesqueries of heart and spirit.

  1. Toni Collette, United States of Tara
  2. Alexandra Goodworth, Head Case (a Netflix wonder)
  3. Lisa Kudrow, in most roles she takes
  4. Felicia Day, The Guild
  5. Jennifer Anniston, Management (and I could be argued out of this one)

Who else do we need to crown Ms. Sloppy Jane USA?

Yours,

CF