Jason Bateman, Allison Janney, Rachael Harris, Phillip Baker Hall, Kathryn Hahn, Rohan Chand
(Focus Features; US theatrical: 14 Mar 2014 (Limited release); 2014)
Nothing like busting a few taboos in your directorial debut to indicate you are really serious about your new career decision. Better yet, nothing like aiming low, knowing full well that, if you succeed, most will assume the best is yet to come. Such is the case with Jason Bateman, he of Arrested Development and almost star status, cinematically speaking. While working diligently on rebuilding his post-Hogan Family resume, he’s become a reliable working actor, appearing in such memorable efforts as The Kingdom, Juno, Up in the Air, and Horrible Bosses, among others.
Now, he’s decided to take the reins and return to one of his first loves (he remains the youngest ever Director’s Guild member to helm a project, at age 18) and the result is Bad Words, a decent enough entertainment that wants to be hip and edgy. Instead, it walks a precariously thin line between being ironic and outright racist.
Guy Trilby (Bateman) is a 40-something year old a-hole who discovers a way into a local children’s spelling bee (“Why?” becomes the movie’s main MacGuffin). A whiz with words but a jackass concerning everything else, he is determined to settle…something by besting these under-aged brainiacs at their own game. Hoping to uncover his motives are Jenny Widgeon (Katherine Hahn), a reporter following the case and the official in charge of the National Competition, Dr. Bernice Deagan (Allison Janney).
While preparing for the big showdown, Guy reluctantly befriends an Indian competitor named Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand). On the surface, their relationship really revolves around the mini-bar in the boy’s hotel room. As with most movies of this kind, however, the possibility of playing role model reveals at least part of the reason why Guy is going gonzo with a bunch of impressionable minors.
Bad Words is both uproariously funny and overly familiar. This is yet another case of an adult suffering from an arrested adolescence and determined to rewrite history while making significant waves in the present. Bateman is good at playing the jerk. He has the kind of friendly face that lets him get away with the abject intolerance and salty sailor’s mouth he displays here. But he’s also a limited actor, not really given to the depth required to make Guy anything other than a devious dick.
Even when we get toward the end and all the layers of lewd and crude behavior have been peeled back, we still have nothing more than a profane cipher. At least in Bad Santa, which this movie more than resembles, Billy Bob Thorton was a thief. Here, Guy is just given over to memories of his youth and some cruel means of remaking them.
There are laughs here, big ones. The script, by Andrew Dodge, was made famous as part of Hollywood’s Black List, a yearly overview of the best unproduced screenplays in Tinseltown and, on the surface, that makes some sense. Today’s parents get as hyperactive as their children over anything which denigrates or demoralizing a kid and that’s basically what the first two acts of this movie do.
Guy is harsh, picking on obvious aspects of his rivals like race, attractiveness, mental agility, strength, and anything else he can attach a foul four-letter word to. He’s a bully, which bristles against our current PC propensity against same. But he’s also supposed to be endearing, knocking down this overly entitled brats one punchline after another. He’s like Homer Simpson without the brain-addled vulnerability. Indeed, you get the impression here that Guy really believes what he’s saying, even when he tries to unveil a softer side.
It’s that streak of perceived meanness which makes Bad Words an occasionally offensive experience. No, not because of the “F”, “C”, “D”, “M”, and “S” bombs being dropped like the American military circa Vietnam. Instead, imagine if Guy wanted to physically hurt these children vs. simply slagging them off with a profane putdown or two (or ten, or 20…)? Not only would this movie never have been made, Dodge would probably be on some FBI watch list as a possible predator.
The privileged in America tend to worship children, treating them like precious nobility when all they’ve managed to accomplish is an insane sense of privilege drilled into them by part time adults who can’t have their guardianship challenged. Four decades ago, we’d call such kids “precocious” or, better yet, spoiled. Today, they’re pariahs, presumably deserving every derogatory thought bubbling in Guy’s brain.
Then there’s the relationship with Jenny, one initially built out of need (her online site is sponsoring Guy’s entry) but that eventually turns into a twisted romance. The moments of “angry” sex between Bateman are Hahn may have bite, but they also appear cartoonish and cavalier. Perhaps if the film had focused more on the adults, their obvious need to live vicariously through their kids turning a previous motion picture portrait of same (Vic Morrow in The Bad News Bears) into something shockingly abusive or if the kids could give as good as they get, we’d have an aesthetic epiphany. Instead, Bad Words lets itself be tagged by its tendencies instead of discovering a way to make a wayward adult arguing with children seem anything other than desperate.
Oh course, that’s the point. Because of his secret purpose, because of the personal pain he’s covering up inside, Guy’s outbursts are quasi-excusable. You see—he’s hurting inside. Some in the audience might accept this. Others will turn away tentatively and whisper “boo hoo” to themselves as a means of making sense out of the character’s callous nature. For Bateman professionally, a step like this is a win/win. He’s good, his direction is sharp, and his approach shows that he’s got a future as a filmmaker.
The material, on the other hand, seems as anxious as Guy, wanting to be over the top and unpleasant while never becoming boorish. In the end, it’s hard to say if Bad Words avoids its inherent issues. The movie is very funny, and for a comedy, that’s everything. What’s lying under the surface, however, may be more calculated than clever.