Jason Bateman’s directorial debut about a misanthropic adult who disrupts a school spelling championship benefits from his clockwork comic timing, but it mistakes a potty mouth for subversive humor.
When will American moviemakers realize that putting aggressively racist and homophobic white people front and center as “shocking” comic relief is just the same old cultural baggage, recycled?
The question probably doesn’t need to be put to the makers of Bad Words, an intermittently entertaining and very occasionally unpredictable comedy whose greatest sin is actually not being racist or homophobic but having no third act. America’s most gifted and reliably dry comic lead Jason Bateman stars as Guy Trilby, a monomaniacal axe-grinder with one goal in life, to win the annual Golden Quill spelling bee. The problem is that he’s a middle-aged man exploiting a bylaws loophole to compete against kids who barely know what puberty means, much less what it’s like.
Unsurprisingly, Trilby is custom-made for Bateman’s perfected admixture of laconic sharpness. Instead of the more explosive brand of destabilizers favored by US comedy, your John Belushis and Will Ferrells, Bateman upends the norms of this closed micro-society of over-schooled spelling quants by having Trilby simply plant himself there and refusing to move or explain his motivations. Occasionally he’ll try to get a leg up in competition by upsetting his preteen opponents with some verbal guerrilla warfare. But in the main, Trilby is a stoic pillar of nasty. (Having played the put-upon and exasperated nice guy in everything from Arrested Development to Identity Thief, Bateman gets some mileage here out of going so far to the dark side.) He’s Bartleby, and will not be moved.
None of the other adults in the film comprehends Trilby’s motivations, and they're all infuriated by that fact. That includes the two women in the film who, instead of being understandably annoyed by Trilby’s antics, must embody different pinpoints on the shrewishness index. Allison Janney makes a thankless appearance as the Golden Quill director, just another authoritarian to be taken down by Trilby’s hyper-verbal and autodidactic insult machine. Kathryn Hahn plays the frazzled-haired, pre-cat-lady reporter who’s accompanying Trilby on his mysterious quest in order to get a story out of it. The two of them have occasional bouts of curious hate-sex that only demean her. Bad Words isn’t exactly Falling Down, but it’s hard not to be disturbed by how furiously eager the put-upon white male protagonist is to cut down the minority characters and women who get in his way.
The only person in Bad Words who appreciates Trilby is his nine-year-old sidekick, Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand, a genuine find). A short, bubbly, and tireless fellow competitor, Chopra attaches himself to Trilby seemingly out of sheer loneliness. The kid is fazed by nothing that Trilby throws his way. Trilby tells the boy to “Shut yer curryhole,” and nicknames him “Slumdog,” but such aspersions have no effect. And since Chaitanya doesn’t fight back, apparently yearning for a bad influence to break open his overly controlled nerd life, Trilby consents to his companionship. Pretty soon, the two are having a grand old time of it, raiding the minibar, playing pranks on strangers, and walking in slo-mo to the Beastie Boys.
Between its occasionally inventive insult comedy and the sweet-sour pairing of Chopra and Trilby Bad Words could have settled into the same cycle of raw-then-heartwarming coda that the Judd Apatow comedy age has taught us to expect. In other words, we just know that beneath the raised hackles and adolescent lashing out of its (invariably) stunted-growth male hero lurks the soul of a wounded child, needing just one compassionate lover or friend to give him that last boost into maturity. So just forget all the tearful children and “curryhole” remarks, because really it’s Trilby who is supposedly the victim. By the time Andrew Dodge’s screenplay gets around to revealing the secret behind Trilby’s quest, it hardly feels worth the effort.
Bateman does keep his first film blessedly short. He’s the rare comic performer who clearly values economy more than overkill, keeping him from the pandering bloat that has afflicted other recent would-be shock comedies like We’re the Millers. Like Trilby himself, Bateman’s style is brusque and unapologetic. If only the story itself had the same honesty.