Elizabeth Halsey should not be teaching, that much is clear. She is vain, arrogant, unethical, and, above all, doesn’t care a fig for her students – or, to be more precise, the eight graders who sit in her classroom every day while she naps and shows inspirational teacher movies like Stand and Deliver and Lean on Me. The only reason she shows up is for the badly needed paycheck after her mousy fiancé figured out she was with him only for his money and cut her off. Elizabeth isn’t a bad person. No – she’s a terrible person. She’ll lie, cheat, and steal to get what she wants which is now a new sugar daddy to whisk her away from the drudgery of public education. Director Jake Kasdan does a good job of subverting those teacher movies Elizabeth shows in lieu of teaching. She has no interest in education until a hunky new substitute impresses her with his expensive watch and money-drenched family history. (We never learn just why he is teaching.) She determines that the new sub Scott won’t be interested in her until she has larger breasts, but doesn’t have the money for breast enlargement surgery. Lucky for her the district offers a hefty cash prize for the teacher whose students receive the highest test scores, so she throws out the videos and throws To Kill a Mockingbird at them. In the traditional inspirational teacher movies, it is the dedicated and creative teachers who inspire the students, ultimately forgiving all their past mistakes so long as they are willing to repent and do their work. Here, instead of Elizabeth inspiring the students (like Edward James Olmos or Michelle Pfiffer), it turns out to be the other way around – sort of. Elizabeth finds herself inspired by the students, not to be a better teacher, but to be a better person – maybe.
There are some great supporting performances, especially Lucy Punch as a rival teacher and competitor for Scott’s affections, the preternaturally perky Amy Squirrel. (I loved some of the reaction shots of her horrified class – especially an open mouthed boy who will clearly be traumatized by her – as she enacted teaching strategies more suited for a kindergarten class rather than middle school. Justin Timberlake (who I have really been enjoying in movies lately) is great as Scott, an at-first-glance perfect guy whose defects include subtle racism. (When he gloats that he was adventurous and had Ethiopian food, he dreamily declares that it’s great they finally have a national cuisine.) And Jason Segal continues his rise to stardom as the awkward gym teacher attracted to the unattainable Elizabeth. Also John Michael Higgins, Phyllis Smith, Thomas Lennon, and Eric Stonestreet each deliver memorable supporting performances. In the lead Cameron Diaz works well. We know she isn’t entirely irredeemable despite all her actions that suggest otherwise only because Diaz manages to insert some humanity into her characterization. The movie has been getting mixed to negative reviews, but if you choose to see it try not to get caught up in moral questions. If Lou Diamond Philips can redeem himself in Stand and Deliver, Elizabeth Halsey can too. (Rating ***1/2)
I never got around to seeing the first installment of this franchise, but I thought I knew enough about it to catch the second. I don’t know if I was overconfident or if this is just a really bad movie, but I didn’t get any of that Pixar magic here – heck, forget magic, I didn’t even have anything approaching a good time. Sure the animation looks fine and some conservatives who love to play perpetual victims have already been boo-hooing that the movie is anti-oil, which alone should be reason enough to enjoy it. I don’t, however, know why they’re crying. The plot is torturously convoluted and will more than likely fly over most kids’ heads while their parents zone out and wonder why they wasted so much money on junk like this, well below the standard for Pixar. Admittedly Pixar set a high standard for itself, but by any standard Cars 2 is bad. The movie is so plot driven it could almost run independently of its characters. More than that, everyone in the movie is disastrously stupid, including our supposed hero Lightning McQueen, who can’t wait to hear an explanation at a critical moment, and a couple of would-be British Intelligence agents who mistake the single-digit IQ tow truck Mater for an American agent. Why? Because he’s so stupid it must be the perfect cover. Never mind that he tells them he isn’t an agent, never mind that they don’t listen to him and cut him off. Never mind anything logical because, for some reason, people think kids movie don’t need logical. It should just be fun! But it isn’t fun when I want to punch someone because everyone is an idiot. Kids movies don’t have to endorse stupidity (I can give you a list of kids movies that are intelligent and fun), but they should be entertaining. Unfortunately Cars 2 keeps kids dumb and is tedious. (Rating **)