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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of July 13

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BAD TEACHER It's no Bad Santa, but Bad Teacher brings just enough naughty behavior to the table to make it a decent watch for viewers tired of PG-13 timidity. In her best role since 2005's underrated In Her Shoes, Cameron Diaz plays Elizabeth Halsey, a gold-digging middle-school teacher who, having just been dumped by her wealthy fiancé, sets her sights on substitute teacher Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), who happens to be the heir to a watch-making dynasty. Elizabeth is manipulative, deceitful, insensitive and lazy, and she's forced to use all her cunning to dislodge Scott from the grip of a perpetually peppy teacher named Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch). Meanwhile, nice-guy gym teacher Russell Gettis (Jason Segel) hangs around, hoping to get past Elizabeth's obvious disinterest in him. Hollywood, which fashions itself as a bearer of moral messages, usually feels the need to take down its flawed characters before the closing credits, with the arrogant/narcissistic/self-centered protagonist miraculously transformed into a wellspring of small sacrifices and big embraces (e.g. half of Jim Carrey's canon). To its credit, Bad Teacher doesn't resort to such shameless pandering: Like Billy Bob Thornton's Willie in Bad Santa, Diaz's Elizabeth Halsey bends but doesn't break, and the film has no need to automatically punish the wicked for their indiscretions. On the downside, the combination of a short running time, often erratic pacing, and a number of red-band-trailer moments conspicuously missing from the finished piece suggests that the studio ultimately didn't have quite enough faith in the picture to let it all hang out. This Bad Teacher is amusing enough to earn a passing mark, but we'll have to hope for an unrated director's cut on DVD/Blu-ray in order to fully gauge this school project's merit. **1/2

BRIDESMAIDS Bridesmaids can't maintain a high level of hilarity over the course of its 125 minutes, but when its game is on, it ranks among the funnier endeavors of the past few years. Judd Apatow is one of its producers, and the film certainly falls in line more with his brand of product — raunchy comedies that often reveal unexpected depths (e.g. The 40-Year-Old Virgin) — than with the usual formulaic rom-coms with female protagonists and wedding themes (e.g. the abysmal Something Borrowed). But let's be quick to steer most of the credit away from Apatow — and even director Paul Feig — and place it where it clearly belongs: at the feet of Kristen Wiig. The talented comedienne has perked up many a movie in supporting roles, and she's sensational in her largest part to date. Working from a screenplay she co-wrote with Annie Mumolo, she plays Annie, who's been chosen by her lifelong best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) to serve as her maid of honor. But Annie feels increasingly threatened by the presence of Lllian's new friend, the lovely and wealthy Helen (Rose Byrne), and matters soon get awkward and out-of-hand. Wiig possesses the same sort of brashness that the likes of Madeline Kahn and Bette Midler used to display in comedies, yet her more delicate features allow her to smoothly apply the brakes and ease back into the more vulnerable aspects of her characterization. As expected, the film contains a smattering of gross-out gags, yet while some are undeniably funny, they can't compete with the moments in which the laughs stem mostly from Wiig's genuine comic chops, whether it's the perfect scene involving a microphone stand-off or the sequence in which she unwisely mixes booze and pills while aboard an airplane. Granted, the actress has been around for years, but with Bridesmaids, it's not exactly inappropriate to declare that a star is born. ***

CARS 2 Before Cars 2, Pixar had released 11 feature-length tales, all but one of them considered unqualified gems that spoke to adults as much as to the kids. The exception was 2006's Cars, which earned mostly positive notices but was dismissed as lightweight children's fare. I would argue that it's a bit stronger than that — its Route 66 mythology, coupled with the presence of Paul Newman in what would turn out to be his final role, lent it a nostalgic, bittersweet tinge — but when placed alongside the magnificence of, say, Up or the Toy Story trilogy, it clearly doesn't possess the same emotional or artistic wallop. And neither does Cars 2, which will replace its predecessor as the new runt of the Pixar litter. But so what? If the Pixar gurus occasionally want to kick up their heels and make movies that offer only surface pleasures, then so be it. The only requirement should be that they entertain, which is something that Cars 2 certainly does. Adopting an international template, this sequel finds Lightning McQueen (voiced again by Owen Wilson) invited to participate in an international Grand Prix event. McQueen reluctantly takes Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) with him, only to be immediately humiliated by his best buddy's redneck behavior. But while McQueen tries to ignore these distractions and concentrate on beating his racetrack rivals, Mater gets mistaken for a brilliant secret agent by a pair of British operatives (Michael Caine as Finn McMissile and Emily Mortimer as Holley Shiftwell) trying to uncover the shadowy head of a criminal cabal. Had Cars 2 been released by any other studio's toon department, it would have been praised for its inventiveness and eye-popping animation; instead, Pixar finds itself punished for having a track record like no other. ***

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