It takes one charismatic actor to make a complete scoundrel likable, admirable even. Malcolm McDowell did it in Stanley Kubrick's dystopian sadist-opera, "A Clockwork Orange". He played Alex DeLarge, a delinquent and rapist who still manages to be the coolest and most human character in the film. In 2003's Christmas heist flick, "Bad Santa", Billy Bob Thornton played an alcoholic bum and sex addict who was so pitiable and life-trampled that he basically cried out for redemption -- something that the holidays can (at least in our hearts) aptly provide. But the real reason why these despicable anti-heroes made us care, despite their misdeeds, was that their depravity came from somewhere deeper, and more meaningful, than mindless cruelty. Thornton's "evil" department-store-santa was essentially a product of utter self-loathing and apathetic misanthropy; he was an emotional hobo in need of the nearest shelter's "chicken noodle soup for the soul." McDowell's Alex, a closet Beethoven enthusiast, was a prophetic caution about the possibility of twenty-first-century lawlessness, and its suffocation of human decency; he symbolized a greater struggle between our enlightened angels and our wicked, anarchic ones. We like him because we are him, and he is us.
I thought a lot about these two successfully sympathetic scumbags as I watched Cameron Diaz (a not unlikable actress) strut her way through the hallways and classrooms of a white bread, suburban learning institution -- where she abuses students and co-workers alike -- in the new comedy, "Bad Teacher". A long-limbed fashionista with a catwalk swagger and look of too-cool disdain, Diaz's Elizabeth Halsey entertains her students with repeat viewings of "Stand and Deliver" while she sleeps, drinks, smokes weed, and dotes over geeky/hunk substitute Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake). Because she's little more than a superficial gold digger, she's convinced a boob job will win her Delacorte's big heart and -- equally big -- trust fund. Thus begins her crusade to earn the dough -- chump change at a time by means of parental bribes, fundraising car washes turned hair-metal skin videos, and other wily manipulations. Along the way she rebuffs advances from a gym teacher (an effortlessly charming Jason Segel) and battles a prissy rival (Lucy Punch) for Delacorte's affection.
As far as on-screen dirtbags go, Elizabeth Halsey is one of the nastiest I've seen in years. Guided by Diaz's ultra brave two-faced-gutter-queen performance, the character projects hateful egomania. And the film, for better or worse, revels in the stink of its heroine's iniquity; writers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg don't apologize for her, but get-off on the thrill of writing a character this "Bad". Taken to the ultimate extreme the film might have been special -- it might have been the first post-Apatow, raunch-romcom with a soul of sweetly self-satisfied sewage. But Stupnitsky and Eisenberg feel the need to give Halsey pea-sized traces of insight and amiability that serve as little more than cliched cracks in the film's fortress wall of badass-ery. All these slivers of sensitivity are perfunctory, and it seems the writers would have preferred them axed from the final film anyway. Undercut by flimsy story structure (how a boob job will catch the attention of a what's on the inside is more important bleeding heart like Timberlake's Delecorte is still a mystery to me), Elizabeth Halsey remains a character in search of a better movie. And since she's a stereotypical scoundrel of movie-world fantasia -- a place where teachers don't get fired for cursing students out and pummeling them with dodgeballs -- and not a lost puppy (like Thornton's Chris Kringle) or a cultural parable (like Alex DeLarge), she remains a wretch without reason. Unless... did the writers mean for the film to be an indictment of the American Teachers Union? On second thought, that might be giving them a little too much credit.