Hollywood Grind: From ZERO to TEACHER in 13 Short Years
In the Golden Age of Hollywood, Jake Kasdan might have started his career in the theater and then made his way West with the advent of the talkies.
He knows how to coax funny performances out of comic actors without allowing them to bluster their way through scenes. And he creates an atmosphere in which supporting actors, bit players, and extras can earn laughs through some tiny piece of business that is given precisely the right amount of screen time. He may not have ascended to the top ranks of comedy directors, but, most assuredly, he would have remained steadily employed and made any number of well-regarded movies. Instead, over the 13 years since his debut, his output now totals just five feature films.
All of Kasdan's skills are on display in Bad Teacher, his latest film, which opens wide on Friday. (Our review is under embargo until then.) Cameron Diaz stars as Elizabeth Halsey, a profanity-spewing, drug-taking, incredibly shallow and lazy gold-digger whose escape from teaching 7th grade is foiled when her fiancé breaks their engagement. She must return to a job she hates, but a rich new substitute teacher (Justin Timberlake) may give her a way out. First, she must compete with the incredibly proper Amy (Lucy Punch) to gain his affections. Then, she must somehow raise $10,000 to pay for a boob job; it's an absolute must.
The premise sounds exceedingly offensive. Rest assured, it's meant to be. Oddly enough, though, it restrains itself from stepping over the line into disgusting or repulsive territory. (Oh, maybe once or twice the line is crossed.) It's bawdy without being promiscuous, mean without being nasty. There is, dare I say, a kind streak, even though Elizabeth remains materialistic and self-centered. Really, she's too old to be making any major changes in her life or personality. But she's not too set in her ways to make minor course corrections.
My first (knowing) exposure to Jake Kasdan came with Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story in 2007, which he directed and co-wrote with Judd Apatow. It was very funny, and featured a good performance by Jenna Fischer, but it felt like one more variation on the Apatow comedy machine that had already pushed out Knocked Out and Superbad that year, and became more repetitive as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Drillbit Taylor, Step Brothers, and Pineapple Express followed in short order. The disastrous Year One ended that cycle in early 2009 before Apatow's own Funny People set things back on track.
It was sometime after that before I started to catch up with Kasdan's other films: Zero Effect (1999), Orange County (2002), and The TV Set (2006). His first and third films were based on his own scripts, while Orange County emerged from the pen of Mike White.
Zero Effect is the gem. Kasdan's directorial debut at the age of 23 may have sparked jealous cries of "Nepotism!" -- he's the son of writer/director Lawrence Kasdan -- but he delivered the goods, and that's what counts. The tale of the reclusive, highly private "world's greatest detective" Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman) and his increasingly dissatisfied personal assistant Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller) remains sly and clever. Daryl appears very weird to other people, but he seems perfectly normal to himself. It's a character trait that would echo throughout Kasdan's subsequent films.
Zero Effect still feels refreshing; it revolves around the characters, it's funny, and it moves at a good pace, without dawdling too long on personality quirks. It shows respect to the intelligence of the viewer, assuming that not every t has to be crossed to get the point.
Orange County reflected a more mainstream, PG-13 rated version of the acerbic worldview that writer Mike White offered in Chuck & Buck (2000) and The Good Girl (2002), both collaborations with director Miguel Arteta. The connective tissue between Kasdan and White can be found in Freaks and Geeks, the short-lived TV series where both served as producers and writers (under Apatow) for its single season of existence. It's easy to say that Orange County imagines what might happen if one of the kids from Freaks and Geeks qualified to attend Stanford University, only to have a guidance counselor screw things up. The film recounts the efforts of Shaun (Colin Hanks), his girlfriend (Schuyler Fisk) and his drug-addled brother (Jack Black) to somehow get into Stanford anyway.
Sharp and funny, despite its low-energy feel, Orange County walked a careful path and avoided the pitfalls of so many other teen comedies of its era. Kasdan worked on other television projects around this time, including the short-lived Undeclared and a pilot for Zero Effect, with Alan Cumming. Then he poured out his experiences into The TV Set (2006), starring David Duchovny as a TV writer battling "creative differences" with network suits while trying to get his very personal, very intelligent comedy-drama pilot on the air.
As you might expect, The TV Set is very much an "industry insider" story, which limited its earning potential, but provided no limit to the laughs that could be wrung out of well-worn material. I mean, really, this is a story that has been told many times before; is anyone surprised anymore that Hollywood is filled with non-creative types trying to stifle the relatively few truly creative people? What The TV Set lacks in originality, it makes up for in lacerating wit and, again, the humor flows from the behavior of people who lack self-awareness. Duchovny's agent (Judy Geer), for example, genuinely thinks everything she tells him is good news -- as long as it's viewed in the dim light of eternal compromise.
Seen in the light of his other films, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and Bad Teacher fall right in line. Walk Hard definitely reflects Apatow's sensibility, but it's more clear now to me that it's a shared sensibility, one that has also intersected with Mike White in the past. It's the same clear-eyed sensibility that controls Bad Teacher, discounting any concerns that might have been raised by the presence of Year One screenwriters Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg. (And confirming the heavy responsibility of director / co-writer Harold Ramis for the woeful results on screen for that caveman "comedy.")
Bad Teacher won't change anyone's opinion of Cameron Diaz, Justin Timberlake, Jason Segel, or Jake Kasdan (though Lucy Punch's performance should cause some people to sit up and take notice). But it's become clear that Kasdan is neither a one-shot wonder nor the director's kid who got an unfair break nor the Apatow acolyte who got thrown a bone. It's taken 13 years, but the evidence is clear: Jake Kasdan is his own man.
And I hope he's got some more good stories to tell.