It’s been a long time since Jason Bateman was in something remotely funny. After resurrecting his career in the early 2000s with Arrested Development and making a successful transition to feature films with a string of well-received performances in Juno, State of Play and Up in the Air, Bateman’s stock quickly declined after turns in dreck like Extract, Couples Retreat, Identity Thief, The Switch and The Change-up. But it wasn’t just the movies that disappointed but Bateman’s performances too. They were the product of an actor more than willing to coast through roles in exchange for a quick buck. Bad Words, which also marks Bateman’s directorial debut, is the antithesis to those cash grabs. Adapted from a hilariously profane Black Listed script by Andrew Dodge, the film is dark, mean-spirited and the funniest, most refreshing film Bateman’s been in over a decade. What’s more, it also establishes him as a wickedly smart and promising director.
Bateman plays Guy Trilby, a foul-mouthed, sexist, racist and deeply disturbed misanthrope who forces his way into the finals of the Golden Quill National Spelling Bee by exploiting a loophole in the rules. When the organizers and parents of the other participants protest, Guy quickly notes that the contest is open to anyone who hasn’t graduated past the eighth grade – which he hasn’t. Though the bee’s director, Bernice Deagan (Allison Janney) does her best to stifle Guy’s chances by throwing some of the most perplexing (and longest) words in the history of the English language at him, her deviousness is no match to Guy’s prodigal skills as a wordsmith nor for his proficiency at demolishing the confidence and feelings of the kids competing against him.
Lest you think Guy is doing it for the money or the fame, you’ll be mistaken. He has a motive but he isn’t telling – not to Deagan, not to the bee’s president Dr. Bowman (Philip Baker Hall), not even to Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), the pesky journalist whose online publication is footing the bill for his run at the title, and who he constantly manipulates and has angry, passionless sex with.
Guy’s plans get slightly complicated when he meets Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), a naïve and adorable Indian-American kid also competing in the bee. When Chaitanya, who doesn’t have any friends, tries to befriend him, Guy returns the favor by calling him “Slumdog,” “Chai Wallah” and a slew of other derogatory terms. Surprisingly, the kid doesn’t seem to mind. Eventually, the two become an odd couple – with Guy being little Chaitanya’s lewd instructor in the art of profanity, obscenity and other bad behavior.
Like Bad Santa, Bad Teacher, Bad Grandpa (really, any other comedy with Bad in the title), a lot of the spark of Bad Words comes from the arsenal of acidic insults and snappy comebacks that Guy assaults upon the kids and their obnoxious, control-freak parents. As shocking as they are, they’re also riotously funny. Whether you find this humor funny or crass depends on whether you take your humor sour or with vinegar. If it’s of the saccharine variety, you’re better off skipping this one.
The film may be a comedy of the broad variety but Bateman and Dodge are quick to establish that this is also a study of an emotionally broken and resentful man. And the actor-director’s deadpan delivery, general look of contempt, and sardonic wit drive home that message. Chand’s performance is a one of the child star-is-born variety. With his soulful eyes and his charming, naturalistic delivery, he makes the ideal foil to Bateman’s resentful Guy. His performance is, of course, aided by Bateman’s wealth of experience as a child actor. The only thing that keeps Bad Words from becoming a very good comedy is its final act, in which the film exchanges its vitriol for melodrama. The change in direction feels like a cheat, and as such, doesn’t quite pay off. It’s to Bateman and Dodge’s credit then that they never allow Guy to become a softie. He’s a jerk at the beginning of the movie, and by its end he still is one – except now, you actually like him.
Director: Jason Bateman
Writer: Andrew Dodge
Principal Cast: Jason Bateman, Rohan Chand, Kathryn Hahn, Philip Baker Hall, Allison Janney
Editor: Tatiana S. Riegel
Cinematography: Ken Seng
Music: Rolfe Kent
Running time: 89 minutes
Distributor: Focus Features
Rated: R for crude and sexual content, language and brief nudity