Film Review – Bad Words
Thanks in large part to Arrested Development‘s absurdly rabid fanbase and cultural status, Jason Bateman has experienced a career resurgence that would make Travolta blush (and presumably mispronounce.) He’s spent the past decade in a wide range of roles, most of which require him to stand back and look put-upon while the movie’s actual lead hams it up and falls into inconveniently placed wedding cakes. He’s not the most traditional of straight men as he finds ample opportunity to wryly comment on disastrous events and can throw a cutting barb like no other. But, with a few exceptions (Juno, The Change-Up), he’s never been given a vehicle in which to spread his wings. Perhaps that’s what drew him to Bad Words, an impolite and often flat-out offensive comedy.
Working from a script by first-timer Andrew Dodge, Bateman takes the reins as both star and director. It’s rather telling he chose this as his directorial debut (give or take a sitcom episode in his youth). One could view it as an uprising. Retaliation for being pigeonholed as the go-to, quick-witted nice guy. Dodge’s script for Bad Words made the infamous Black List, a yearly tally of the best unproduced screenplays floating around Hollywood. I’d personally like to get my hands on this draft because I am utterly befuddled as to how this made the cut. It’s an ugly little piece of work that gnarls and gnashes at every turn but unfortunately has no teeth.
Bateman stars as the inexplicably named Guy Trilby, a proofreader who takes leave to participate in The Golden Quill, a prestigious (and fictitious) national spelling bee aimed at children. Trilby exploits a loophole in the rules, though, stating any participant who has yet to pass the eighth grade is eligible. His motivations remain unclear throughout much of the movie but we get many, many scenes in which he relishes the chance to take down these bright minds. These scenes are played for laughs and, occasionally, are successful. But how much fun is it to watch a grown man hassle a kid about his weight or trick a girl into thinking she’s had her period? There’s a fine line between raunch and out and out cruelty. Bad Santa, Dodge’s inspiration whether he admits it or not, strikes that balance beautifully. Bad Words misses this mark. Over and over.
This isn’t to say there aren’t some bright spots. Rohan Chand (Issa on Homeland, guys!) plays fellow competitor Chaitanya Choprawho who befriends and ultimately wins over Guy. He brings a wide-eyed innocence to the proceedings that never quite veers into precociousness. Guy takes him under his wing for reasons that are never really explained. An impressive montage of the trouble they get into one night is by far the stand-out piece of the movie, which is otherwise rather drab and lifeless. Kathryn Hahn is also on hand as a journalist documenting the affair but her role is so thankless I forgot to include her until now. Her primary characteristic is a sort of frazzled determination to unearth Guy’s motivations. She (and we) ultimately get our answer but it’s too little too late. Oh, and she sleeps with him despite her intermittent disgust for him because, well of course she does.
Did I mention Philip Baker Hall and Allison Janney are also in this thing? A waste of talent so big is a disgrace and I’m willing to bet there’s some gold residing on a cutting room floor somewhere.
Look, I like Jason Bateman. If he wants to branch out and try new things, I’m all for it. Just maybe get a second opinion first.