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DAVE DAVIES, host:

The new film "Bad Teacher" centers on a woman who teaches children who would be too young to see this movie. It's an R-rated comedy starring Cameron Diaz as, well, a bad teacher. Directed by Jake Kasdan, it also stars Justin Timberlake and Jason Segel as an out-of-shape gym teacher.

Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: "Bad Teacher" is a raunchy comedy about a conniving, alcoholic, druggie middle-school teacher played by Cameron Diaz who'll do anything to get the money to buy herself some bigger breasts so she can marry rich and not have to do the job at which she's, yes, bad. How bad is she?

I won't give away specifics, but every scene is contrived to make you say, that is a bad teacher - much as another R-rated film about someone not living up to the responsibility of interacting with children, "Bad Santa," made you say, that is a bad Santa.

So the movie is one broad joke on the theme of how-bad-is-she repeated over and over, and most of the early reviews have complained about its coarseness and vulgarity. My response is easily stated: Get off your high horses. "Bad Teacher" made me laugh harder than anything this year outside Broadway's "The Book of Mormon," which is filthier and still won the Tony.

As Elizabeth Halsey, Cameron Diaz does not walk when she can sashay, and almost always in short, tight dresses and stiletto heels. She looks, frankly, used, dissipated, hungover, her make-up smeared, her wide mouth looking unusually lewd.

She's wonderful - but then, she's often wonderful, despite recent high-profile embarrassments like "Knight and Day" opposite Tom Cruise mugging it up and trying too hard to be funny. Diaz doesn't need to mug. Her great, big features are gorgeous and clown-like at once.

As "Bad Teacher" opens, Elizabeth is departing John Adams Middle School, where she's been teaching for a year without even learning the names of her students - a matter of crushing indifference to her, given her coming marriage to a rich boy. Alas, he dumps her - or, rather, his mother insists he dump her for racking up staggering monthly credit card bills. So it's back to bad teaching.

On her return to the school in the fall, Elizabeth comes face to face with her opposite number, played by the brilliant British actress Lucy Punch, often a sexpot in movies, but here the soul of primness.

(Soundbite of movie, "Bad Teacher")

(Soundbite of footsteps)

Ms. LUCY PUNCH (Actor): (as Amy Squirrel) There she is, Elizabeth Halsey. Woo-hoo. I am so excited we're going to be across-the-hall mates, but I am so sad it's because your relationship ended.

Ms. CAMERON DIAZ (Actor): (as Elizabeth Halsey) Who are you, again?

Ms. PUNCH: (as Amy Squirrel) Amy Squirrel.

Ms. DIAZ: (as Elizabeth Halsey) Squirrel?

Ms. PUNCH: (as Amy Squirrel) Yeah. You know...

(Soundbite of squirrel noises)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PUNCH: (as Amy Squirrel) Don't worry. You were kind of a lone wolf last year, and so busy planning the wedding.

Ms. DIAZ: (as Elizabeth Halsey) I found him in bed with somebody else.

Ms. PUNCH: (as Amy Squirrel) Oh, my gosh.

Ms. DIAZ: (as Elizabeth Halsey) It was another man.

Ms. PUNCH: (as Amy Squirrel) Shut the front door.

EDELSTEIN: That lie about him being with a man, it evolves the more she tells it. You can imagine - or maybe not.

What "Bad Teacher" most reminds me of is old Bill Murray comedies like "Stripes" or "Meatballs," but with a woman talking dirty and using everything in her arsenal to get what she wants: cheating, lying, and being incorrigibly sleazy and opportunistic in the great American degenerate movie huckster tradition. There's a Bill Murray figure here, too, a pudgy, pothead gym teacher played by Jason Segel, who watches her with amusement, admiration and unconcealed lust.

One thing, though: As taken as he is by her gonzo ways, he doesn't collude in her bad teaching. He thinks she should do something else. Although Elizabeth isn't punished for breaking almost every law there is, ethical and legal, she's not rewarded, either. Where she ends up is very satisfying, even touching.

Director Jake Kasdan loves his actors and gives them room to breathe -and in some cases, hyperventilate. Along with sterling turns by Diaz, Segel, Lucy Punch and Phyllis Smith from "The Office" as Elizabeth's mousy colleague, Justin Timberlake defies expectations as an insipid little bespectacled nerd with a fortune from his family's watch business - a performance of gentle weirdness that builds to a non-sex sex scene with some of the most inspired nerdy-dirty language I've ever heard.

I've missed gonzo. I don't mean fake gonzo, like the Judd Apatow movies in which child-men act out before they have to grow up, or swill like the "Hangover" films that reinforce American males' sense of entitlement. "Bad Teacher," like "Bad Santa," is blessedly free of redeeming social value.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

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