If the mysterious, dialogue-free trailer for “The Tree of Life” wasn’t enough of an indication, maybe director Terrence Malick’s track record can speak to what kind of film this is. Delivering his fifth feature in almost four decades, Malick has never been concerned with staying relevant or “playing the game,” so to speak. Box office returns? Inviting story structures? Roles that showcase their stars? Forget it. “The Tree of Life” is another beautiful, unexpected and frustrating film from the eccentric director—one that speaks through imagery and continues to whisper long after the end credits.
While the story is centered around a young boy named Jack growing up in 1950’s America, it is framed within something far more expansive: the creation of the universe, the complicated relationship between man and God and the convergence of grace and nature. The majority of the screen time is spent depicting Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) interacting with his brothers and his parents and battling to discover who he is and how he fits into his environment. As these scenes are intermixed with glimpses into Jack’s future as well as depictions of planets and dinosaurs and the afterlife, it becomes clear that these characters are more than just an American family. Jack is man, at constant odds with his parents and even himself. His father is strength and judgment and the ferocity of nature. His mother is grace and love and safety.
How Malick creates a family that convincingly embodies the livelihood of small-town America and then effectively uses them as a symbol of humanity and all of its intricacies is truly astounding. As I watched the film, I felt like I knew Jack and his parents. They become more than names or even characters – they become feelings: the feeling of praying to a mysterious God and interpreting His response, the feeling of being powerless and the feeling of having too much power and the feeling of trying to connect a troubled past with an uncertain future.
Perhaps this review is as vague as the trailer, but this is a film that wasn’t meant to be explained though words. Malick himself is very conservative with words throughout the film, using music and light and stunning imagery to evoke a response. Some viewers will respond with a frustrated sigh, and some will respond in awe. Keep in mind that this is a film that engages more than it entertains and spends more time posing questions than it does manufacturing answers. “The Tree of Life” isn’t so much a definitive statement that you can choose to agree or disagree with. Instead it’s more of a faint whisper that prompts you to follow, observe and draw your own conclusions.
If we are honest with ourselves about the state of the film industry today, we can acknowledge that “Bad Teacher” is not a film destined for the Oscars or to reinvent comedy. Plenty of films are released each year that do not strive for anything more than being a break from reality and inspiring a few chuckles. With that in mind, it is safe to say that “Bad Teacher,” while not groundbreaking, keeps up the laughs with quirky characters and raunchy humor.
Director Jake Kasden and screenwriters Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg kick off the movie with Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) leaving her first and last year of teaching behind her. That is until her wealthy fiancé dumps her due to her manipulative, gold digging ways. In order to achieve her dream of being taken care of, Elizabeth goes back to teaching and sets her sights on winning the well-off substitute teacher’s (Justin Timberlake) affections through sex appeal, a boob job and battling it out with perky, but intense rival teacher Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch).
When not trying to reach her ultimate goal, Elizabeth is teaching her middle school students solely through the medium of film, as she wades her way through her constant hangover, while fellow teachers cover up for her (Jason Segel and Phyllis Smith).
The students, and most of the staff, are in total awe of Diaz’s vulgar repertoire of one liners and indifferent attitude. Even more so, she is able to talk her way out of anything as heads are nodded in mute acceptance. While banter between Diaz and Segel is weirdly charming and Timberlake’s dopey love triangle with Punch has its fleeting comedic reliefs, the film leaves viewers wanting more—namely more of Segel and Smith in their hilarious but tempered roles. As comedy films keep reaching to cross the next boundary of inappropriate, “Bad Teacher” hits some of the same notes as previous female-driven raunchfests, but keeps it together with tried and true methods.
One glaring problem in the film is that, like any TV show or movie that focuses on a particular profession, there will be discrepancies here and there. Despite this expectation, “Bad Teacher” reaches far beyond the norm and settles itself into smug satisfaction that it has been able to skip the details and spotlight on the F-bombs and over-the-top humor. In the end, it makes sense that Punch’s character would be enraged at the utter flippancy and disregard that Diaz brings to educating children. Yes, Amy Squirrel is batshit crazy throughout the entire film, but her attitude towards the serious subject of being an educational gatekeeper justifies her motive.
This, in turn, begs the question of what direction comedy films will venture into in the future. Will there be a need to stick to accurate details anymore? Or will realism be thrown out the window to make room for outlandish characters rooted in their bizarre predicaments? And, as usual, it’s movie-goers who will decide.