Review: Bad Teacher (2011)

If Bad Teacher is a vocational reworking of Terry Zwigoff’s masterful Bad Santa, with Cameron Diaz’s lazy, money-grubbing, breast implant-seeking schoolteacher filling in for Billy Bob Thornton’s lazy, money-grubbing, alcohol-seeking mall Santa, then it’s a curiously tepid cousin needlessly sanitized by its good intentions. Diaz’s Elizabeth Hasley drinks bottles of whiskey hidden in her desk drawer, bluntly informs a kid who wears his abandoned father’s sweatshirt several times a week that he has no chance with the prettiest girl at school, and embezzles money from the seventh-grade car wash (shortly after using her body to spike up the funds and causing a police car to crash)*. But Hasley isn’t mean and interesting in the way that Billy Bob’s Willie T. Stokes captured our attentions. Instead of having a fast-talking dwarf Marcus as a sidekick, Hasley has the passive Lynn Davies (played by Phyllis Smith, best known as Phyllis from The Office), who looks forward to her three months off in the summer (with numerous trips to the zoo) and sees a surprise milk choice at the cafeteria (“2%? 1%? Chocolate?”) as a high point. What Bad Santa understood was that having a seemingly modest character constantly criticizing a middle-aged loser made us more interested in why the latter lived the way that he did. Hasley has no such luck with Lynn. Indeed, it’s Hasley who is the one to encourage Lynn to talk with two cowboys at a bar. Which works against the idea that her character is supposed to be, well, bad.

Perhaps screenwriters Gene Stupntsky and Lee Eisenberg (both veterans of The Office) should be faulted because they’ve been working too long within the needlessly restrictive limits of American television. They don’t seem to understand that an R-rated movie featuring a mean character really should be dangerous, but their floundering wit is here in spurts. There’s one funny moment early on when Hasley’s man shouts about the need for opera to be passed on to the next generation. And when Bad Teacher was especially irreverent, such as Justin Timberlake’s squeaky-clean teacher making racially insensitive remarks about a new Ethiopian restaurant or an especially aggressive method of getting kids to remember the details of To Kill a Mockingbird, I longed for the film to transcend into additional cringe comedy. But then the film would present another weak or gutless or repetitive moment, not understanding that incriminating photos of a naked administrator or Lucy Punch’s chirrupy Amy Squirrel getting a few comeuppances were mere variations on hackeneyed comic situations we’ve seen too many times before.

Jake Kasdan’s flat direction is also a big problem. I don’t know what has happened to Kasdan ever since his fine work on Freaks and Geeks and his very underrated debut feature, Zero Effect, but I fear that Lawrence’s son is now a lost cause. I’m fairly certain that Cameron Diaz was slightly miscast, but I don’t know for sure. Because she delivers her lines with heavy aspiration on the consonants rather than hitting the vowels hard. And because Diaz’s voice is mellifluous, this disastrous direction causes Diaz to lose the authority she so desperately needs to win our attention, especially because Hasley is rejected by several men when she tries to use her looks and she’s someone who spends cash so wantonly. And while I recognize that Justin Timberlake has about as many dramatic options as a home pregnancy test, a good director will understand that mixing up the only two settings available (as David Fincher did in The Social Network) is better than sticking with one. There’s something deeply unpleasant about seeing a 30-year-old guy who believes he’s in sync with Stanislavsky resort to the same terrible stage-hogging case of the cutes that he used in his twenties. Sure, Timberlake isn’t much of an actor. But can’t he at least pretend to be an adult?

The one actor I can commend here is Jason Segel as an underestimated gym teacher persistently trying to woo Hasley. I liked Segel in Knocked Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and he seems to be the only actor in this movie who is having any fun, perhaps because he knows how to use his face to suggest a social awareness that other characters lack. But Segel isn’t a mugger: he knows how to enter a scene without dominating it and he knows how to make his fellow actors look good. If we’re not drawn to Cameron Diaz in this movie, then Jason Segel serves that role.

But enough about Jason Segel, who hardly needs any help from me. In our post-Bridesmaids landscape, the time has come for women to be rude, crude, mean, and dangerous in mainstream comedies without being kept on a leash. Bad Teacher cannot live up to this basic requirement, and, in failing to be even modestly subversive, it becomes an instantly regressive and instantly forgettable offering.

* — A brief note on this movie’s recidivist exploitation of the physical female form: If Bad Teacher has been designed in any way as a double X counterweight to male-dominated comedies, why are the filmmakers here so desperate to use Cameron Diaz’s body like this? Furthermore, why does she seek a breast implant rather than cold hard cash? Still furthermore, in an opening scene, there is one fellow teacher — a slightly overweight (that would be “normal” weight) woman played by Jillian Armenante, whom I remember playing a sensitive therapist from The Sarah Connor Chronicles — who appears, expressing enthusiasm. She raises her arm. We see the sweat spots in her armpits. And that’s it. There is an additional moment when a woman’s breasts are there to be ogled for their silicone perfection by all and sundry. And that’s it. I submit to the reader that a movie that maintains such a superficial interest in women instantly loses credibility, especially when Eisenberg claims in the production notes: “We would see so many funny women on Saturday Night Live and on talk shows, and they’d be hysterical and charming, and then we’d go to the movies and they’d be props to get two guys to become friends or whatever. We really wanted to write a project for a comedienne.” Eisenberg may have wanted to write a project for a comedienne, but the film clearly views much of its supporting women as props.

NYFF: The Social Network Press Conference

[This is the sixth in a series of dispatches relating to the 2010 New York Film Festival.]

“It’s fundamentally the same application for myself. It became clear to me after my first reading of the script that, uh, there was going to be, uh, the version of this person, my character in the film, that he wasn’t sort of the hero, so to speak. And, but, no one sits behind a – you know, I obviously, I’m not, you never play anything sitting behind a laptop, you know, twirling your moustache. I think that, like Jesse said, it doesn’t matter – that’s the beauty of this film to me. Uh, just that you really get to pick, uh, sort of who you side with. And I had a friend who recently screened the film and said to me, I thought it was really telling things, as soon as he walked out, he said, ‘You know, I don’t agree with anyone in this movie. But I don’t disagree with this movie.’ Speaking about all the characters, I think that’s what, what kind of makes the dynamic of these three characters tick. But, uh, I feel like you defend your character. No one believes what they’re doing is wrong in life and, and, and so I feel like….”

The above incoherence, which demands a sentence diagramming army led by a Patton-like grammarian, did not come from Sarah Palin. These words were uttered by Justin Timberlake on Friday morning, who appeared at the Social Network press conference in dorky eyeglasses (prescription or ironic aesthetic?) and didn’t seem to understand that, for once, the event didn’t center around him.

“I feel like you’re looking at me,” said Timberlake after Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield had offered thoughtful remarks on how they felt empathy for the real-life figures they were playing, “and you want me to add what they said as well. I also have empathy for other human beings, thank you.”

It is safe to say that a man who is set to turn thirty in a few months — indeed, one who has been at the receiving end of several hundred interviews — should have a better ability to speak. But as both the film and the press conference demonstrated, Timberlake is at his best when he is given lines to recite or rudimentary causes to champion.

“I don’t have a personal Facebook page,” said Timberlake later, when a reporter asked all on stage (save moderator Todd McCarthy) about their Facebook presence. “But it is nice to know that, through the world of philanthropy, for instance, that you can send out a message and, for instance, raise money for free health care for kids. I mean, it’s a fantastic thing.”

“I’ve heard of Facebook the way I’ve heard of the carburetor,” answered screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, “but I can’t pop the hood of my car, point to it, and tell you what it does.”

Indeed, the presence of Sorkin at one end of the stage and Timberlake at the other suggested a deliberately arranged spectrum of intellect. Perhaps an inside joke from the fine folks at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. But that speculation wouldn’t be fair to the three men sitting in the middle (much less Todd McCarthy, sitting to Sorkin’s right): respectively, Fincher, Eisenberg, and Garfield.

On playing Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, Garfield noted that Saverin seemed “warm, yet kind of reserved.” There was very little documentation to go on, which granted Garfield some wiggle room to invent.

“I had minimal to go from,” said Garfield, “which was actually quite liberating. Even though I did try to find him in a very obtuse and uncommitted way. But it would have been really interesting. Because, of course, if you’re playing someone who really exists, and who is living and breathing somewhere, you kind of feel a massive sense of responsibility to not ruin them on screen. Because we’re all human.”

Eisenberg confessed that he had developed a greater affection for Facebook honcho Mark Zuckerberg while doing press for The Social Network.

“You have no choice,” he explained. “It’s impossible to disagree with a character that you’re portraying. We shot the movie for about five and a half months. And they were very long days. And you’re spending a lot of time working to defend your character’s behavior. So even if the character is acting in a way that hurts other characters, you still have to understand and ultimately sympathize with that character. It’s impossible to play it any other way.”

Sorkin stated that he didn’t think his script was about Facebook, pointing out that he “thought it was a movie that has themes as old as storytelling itself.” He then compared his work to Chayefsky, Shakespeare, and Aeschylus, pointing out that he hoped the deal with friendship, loyalty, and class – the same themes that these masters did. “Luckily for me, none of these people were available. So I got to write about it.”

Fincher viewed The Social Network as an opportunity to dial his pyrotechnic style down.

“There’s no problem in sublimating your desire to show off if what you’re presenting is something that you think is going to take,” said Fincher. “I mean, originally, the script began. It was in black. And you hear the voices over the black. And I kind of wondered, well, why don’t we just see the Columbia logo and start hearing them then? And hear the jukebox and hear all the people talking and let people know, ‘Pin your ears back, man. You got to pay attention.’ Because if we can start over the trailers of other movies, that’s what I want. And at one point, we talked about the notion of putting the credits over that opening scene. So it was like jukebox, cacophony, people, burger plates, two people talking over each other, and unit production manager. Information overload.”

Technology, for Fincher, represented the double-edged sword of “more options” for today’s filmmakers. He noted that a regatta sequence that appears midway through the film, containing approximately 100 CGI environmental shots, was shot on July 4th. This was less than two months before Fincher needed to have the movie locked for prints.

“The way we make movies has changed radically in the last ten years,” said Fincher. “I mean, I’m able to be in two or three different places at once. I have video tests of rehearsals that are happening in Uupsala right now that are being downloaded so that I can look at them when I go back to the hotel room. So that I can say, ‘This is how I want my parade float to appear on Sunday morning.’ I mean, obviously, that’s a great thing.”

Sorkin stated that he and producer Scott Rudin aggressively courted Facebook in an attempt to secure Zuckerberg’s cooperation on the film.

“Mark ended up doing exactly what I would have done,” said Sorkin, “which was decline. We also told him at the time that, whether they participated or not, we would show them the script when the script was done. And we would welcome any notes that they had. So we did give them the script. And their notes largely had to do with hacking. That there was a little bit of hacking terminology that I’d gotten wrong unsurprisingly. I know that there was a rumor a day or two ago that Mark had been spotted at a screening. I doubt it.”

Fincher was later asked about whether anything was sensationalized or sexed up for the movie. He gave the floor to Sorkin, who replied, “None.”

“I’m not going to sell any tickets by making this statement,” said Sorkin, “but I have to tell you that there is less sex in this movie than there is any two minutes of Gossip Girl. Nothing in the movie was invented for the sake of Hollywoodizing it or sensationalizing it. There are, as I explained, because of the three different versions of the story that were given not just in the deposition rooms, but there was a lot of first-person research that I did with people who are characters in the movie and people who were close to the event – most of whom were speaking to me on a condition of anonymity. And there were a lot of conflicting takes. So there are going to be a lot of people saying, ‘That’s not true. That didn’t happen.’ Just as they’ve been saying that since 2003. The work that I did was exactly the same as the work that any screenwriter does on any nonfiction film. When Peter Morgan writes The Queen, he’s going from fact to fact to fact. But Peter Morgan wasn’t in Queen Elizabeth’s bedroom when they were talking about their daughter-in-law. Moreover, and more important, people don’t speak in dialogue. Life doesn’t play out in scenes. There’s work that the dramatist does. But nothing was invented. Certainly nothing was sexualized in order to amp up the temperature on the movie.

The conference concluded with a chunky, pipsqueaked hack journalist — in desperate need of a haircut and elocution lessons — asking a question about whether The Social Network represented a “departure” for Fincher.

“Because it doesn’t involve somebody aging backwards or because it doesn’t involve serial killers?” replied Fincher, who offered a look as if he had just learned of a last minute dental appointment set for the next morning.

The hack journalist foolishly continued with his inane inquiry.

Fincher sighed. Then he said, “You know, I’d like to give it a lot of really deep thought, but I probably won’t.” He politely presented the hack journalist with the boilerplate answer he so desperately coveted. Then the conference came to a close.

NYFF: The Social Network

[This is the fifth in a series of dispatches relating to the 2010 New York Film Festival.]

A biopic which deals with a dead VIP is one thing, but the unceasing celerity of our present age demands art that skewers the self-important monsters enforcing their limited and autocratic viewpoints on the way we live (and, in the worst of cases, profiting from this egotism). The Social Network, which is one of David Fincher’s best movies and is among the sharpest material that Aaron Sorkin has ever written for film or television, is a highly entertaining movie possessed of such stones, with one endlessly intriguing, Asperger’s-like, socially clueless, self-made Napoleon (that is, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg) as its central character. It is so quietly yet deliciously brutal in its depiction of the world’s youngest (and loneliest) billionaire that the real-life Zuckerberg may have a tough time finding new bona-fide friends who don’t happen to share his continued entomological view of the human race. (Curiously enough, earlier this week, it was discovered that Zuckerberg donated $100 million to the Newark public school system, complete with the apparent allegation that Zuckeberg had intended to do so anonymously. The philanthropy’s suspicious timing, coming a week before The Social Network‘s release, carries the telltale whiff of a convenient distraction. The movie couldn’t come at a better time.)

Yet one is tempted to pity both the real-life Zuckerberg (and his cinematic representation) for this behemoth’s sheer failure to comprehend the totality of his possibly assholic nature. (In the film’s opening scene, Zuckerberg is literally declared an asshole at the aptly named Thirsty Scholar Pub. Later, he is told, “You’re not an asshole, Mark. You’re just trying so hard to be.” Perhaps due to legal reasons, the film chooses to dance around the question of whether Mark Zuckerberg really is an asshole. Or maybe Fincher and Sorkin wish the audience to determine its own answer. Unlike Facebook, “asshole” does not have to be a variable.) Whether Zuckerberg is an asshole or not, at film’s end, this Little Lord Fauntleroy is very much alone, despite the 400 million users on Facebook. He faces (if you’ll pardon the pun) a woman who can size him up without a computer and who can deactivate his likability (a variable just as applicable the courtroom, but one that doesn’t require a logarithm) with a single question. And not even the laptop or the considerable fortune that Zuckerberg clings to can save him from the pitiful truth of his solitary and outmoded existence.

I mention this plot development, while trying to be coy about this conclusive exchange, simply because I fear that Fincher and Sorkin will face some criticism for the way that women are treated in this film. They may be intending to remark upon the throwback “gentlemen from Harvard” virus that managed to seize the tech industry in the last decade (still seen in such overblown conferences as Tools of Change that feature more dicks, both literally and temperamentally, than a stag club or a fraternity in an elitist Ivy League school). Yes, there are women who practice law in the two trials framing the flashback narrative. But the film does make the choice to portray women as groupies who blow Zuckerberg and co-founder Eduardo Saverin in bathroom stalls. When two of these women ask what they can do during the early days of Facebook (then known as TheFacebook), it is implied that there is no role for them. And the men behind these dot coms (including Napster’s Sean Parker, also depicted in the film, of which more anon) have difficulty remembering the names of the women they sleep with – an interesting irony, in light of Facebook being built upon hard objective data and its later efforts to seize control of the words and images generated or shared by its users.

Thus, there can be no doubt that this misogyny originates from Zuckerberg, and that it was this very atavistic attitude that fueled Facebook’s massive development. With Sorkin wisely quoting Zuckerberg’s real-life LiveJournal entries (in which Zuckerberg called his ex-girlfriend a “bitch” and compared her to an animal), this is one of many brilliant instances in which Sorkin uses airtight facts (gleaned from Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires and, as Sorkin intimated in the post-screening press conference I attended, independent research from anonymous sources) to not only reveal an asshole without naming him as one, but to damn a world that, as Joanne McNeil has recently observed of the Apple Store’s glass staircases, prefers clean and functional aesthetics to sound moral judgment.

There are some very minor moments in which Fincher and Sorkin telegraph some of these points a bit too much, particularly with the needlessly ironic casting of Justin Timberlake as Napster founder Sean Parker. Timberlake is a charming enough screen presence, but he simply doesn’t have the sheer moth-attracting neo-blueblood light that the fast-talking Jesse Eisenberg has as Zuckerberg, much less the Harvard boy-next-door aw-shucks naivete of Andrew Garfield as Saverin. (Saverin, a business major, is so intoxicated by Facebook – even after Zuckerberg cuts loose to California without him – that he doesn’t even read the legal papers he has to sign, little realizing that he has been screwed over by Zuckerberg, his only real friend and co-founder.) But I think Fincher is smart enough to be cognizant of this imbalance. During the first meeting between Parker, Zuckerberg, and Saverin, Fincher stages a good portion of the scene with the dialogue remaining silent. Appletinis and enticing sushi are brought to the table, as yet another jagged yet rocking music cue from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross plays, leaving Timberlake to bounce war stories off the wild-eyed admirer Zuckerberg. It is Parker who serves as an encouraging older brother figure to Zuckerberg (curiously, the film doesn’t mention anything about Zuckerberg’s family), who offers perfectly sound advice (“Lose the ‘The,’” he says during the days), and who sees entrepreneur Roy Raymund’s suicide not as a parable, but as a tale to inspire empowerment.

But I’m being needlessly pedantic. Really, this is an excellent movie that no self-respecting filmgoer of any type should miss. The Social Network breezes by at such a breaknecking speed that I truly believed a mere thirty minutes had transpired when The Beatles’s “Baby You’re a Rich Man” played during the closing credits.

Some might see The Social Network as “a departure” for Fincher (as one extremely idiotic journalist suggested at the post-screening press conference, leaving a visibly flustered Fincher to point out politely that he doesn’t work this way), because the film limits its technical tomfoolery to actor Armie Hammer playing a pair of identical twins (Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss – the “Winklevii,” as Zuckerberg condescendingly calls them – who saw the conceptual framework for their Harvard Connection stolen by Zuckerberg). These same people have forgotten that Fincher has managed to get great performances out of his actors (Robert Downey, Jr. in Zodiac, the cast of Seven, Brad Pitt and Edward Norton in Fight Club) and remains quirky enough to cast at least one musician in a supporting role (here, Timberlake; in previous films, Dwight Yoakam in Panic Room, Meat Loaf in Fight Club, and so forth).

Fincher has shot The Social Network on RED, an imperfect but evolving digital camera system that feels right for Facebook’s inevitably ephemeral legacy. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenwerth keeps the first hour’s palette confined to Bostonian browns and reds. A chicken ensnared within a cage recalls the incarcerated bird within Erich von Stoheim’s Greed. There’s a rapid-fire rowing race montage midway through the film that recalls Fincher’s early music videos, but it also signifies a slight narrowing of perspective for any of the audience members who haven’t yet caught onto one of the film’s visual motifs. For as the Facebook story unfolds, Fincher includes many shots in which the backgrounds are deliberately out-of-focus, a vicarious signal to the audience that Zuckerberg and his enemies can’t see much beyond their own hollow bubbles. (This includes one of Sean Parker’s conquests, in our first introduction to him, removing her clothes in the fuzzy background. And it’s also used quite well in another scene in which a silk scarf burns in a background blur.)

I haven’t yet commended Aaron Sorkin’s language. Sorkin, as usual, writes in a way that is, well, undeniably Aaron Sorkin. Like Mamet’s dialogue, Sorkin writes more with parallel precision than absolute verisimilitude. But it works incredibly well here. Sorkin finds a remarkably adept balance between his usual pursuits of heady-sounding but ultimately pedantic subject matter (the film starts off with a consideration that the United States has more people with genius IQs than China) and Matt Zuckerberg’s arrogant technobabble. This results in some great zingers that go well beyond the “I believe I deserve some recognition” now made famous by the trailer.* “Did I adequately answer your condescending question?” replies Zuckerberg in condescension to an attorney during a deposition. Larry Summers is depicted in one scene, when the Winklevii desperately petition him to seek early redress for Zuckerberg’s theft. “Punch me in the face,” he says to his secretary upon hearing the Winklevii’s feeble request. “You want to buy a Tower Records?” says Parker to Saverin, when attempting to demonstrate consequential change that the failed Napster was able to make.

So The Social Network isn’t just that rare film where popular and critical audiences will likely leave the theater happy. It’s very much a film of our times, for our times. It’s a near-perfect synthesis of pitch-perfect direction, great writing, and incredible characters. It’s a gripping two hour experience depicting the pleasures and pitfalls of living in a digital world, but, unlike its subject, The Social Network lets its audience question the authority, and, in so doing, respects them.

* – As an aside, considering the recent YouTube and Twitter parodies, I’m wondering if any movie trailer has generated nearly as many homages in recent memory.