"You can't find one little chicken tikka to get your shrimp tandoori all up in?"
After several years in the wilderness, former child star Jason Bateman got his career back on track in 2004 thanks to his starring role on the cult favorite sitcom Arrested Development. Since that time, he has become something of a go-to straight man for comedies looking to pair him with an ever increasing array of wacky stars from Charlie Day in Horrible Bosses to Melissa McCarthy in the terrible Identity Thief. Now making his directorial debut with the spelling bee comedy Bad Words, Bateman has gifted himself with a role that is a 180 from what we're used to seeing him do, giving him the chance to show what he can do when playing a thoroughly unlikeable character. Did it pay off? Read on to find out…
Guy Trilby (Bateman) is a forty year-old proofreader who has decided to exploit a loophole and compete in the Golden Quill National Spelling Bee competition since he never passed the eighth grade. After a regional final win that allows him entry into the national finals, Guy brings his wholly unpleasant demeanor to the biggest stage imaginable, and his remorselessness shows no signs of cracking in the face of mounting pressure to drop out. Guy is accompanied on his journey by a journalist (Kathryn Hahn) whose website is sponsoring all of his endeavors thanks to the promise of an exclusive story on his quest to compete in such a prestigious tournament.
At the Nationals, Guy also meets a fellow competitor, ten year-old Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), who seems to want a friendship with Guy despite Guy's total reluctance to even speak to him. He ends up caving when he discovers that Chaitanya is in a hotel room by himself that's stocked with a mini-bar, and Guy's own selfish ends can be met. They strike up an unlikely friendship when Guy begins to see something of himself in the boy, particularly how he is treated by his emotionally distant, yet controlling father. Raised with no knowledge of who his own father was, Guy takes Chaitanya under his wing, teaching him to live it up, but their newfound friendship may spell disaster for their equally competitive natures in this major event.
As a showcase for Bateman's unique comedic sensibilities, Bad Words is about as good a comedy as you can hope for. Devoid of the endless Apatovian riffing that has begun to seep its way into every mainstream comedy, including last year's The Wolf of Wall Street, it's refreshing to see a tightly scripted comedy that feels like the best possible version of this story, rather than a variation on a dozen other outcomes. It's also a breath of fresh air to have a protagonist whose sole mission is to destroy the livelihoods of the most innocent members of our society, and not be required to have a "come to Jesus" moment where he changes his fundamental personality flaws. While that's not to say that the film doesn't have a truly soft core beneath its hardened exterior, it's also nice to deviate from convention and subvert the audience's expectations even a little bit.
Andrew Dodge's script was one of the top scripts on the 2011 "Black List" of best un-produced screenplays, and much like another famously under appreciated black list script, The Beaver, this film embraces nastiness and turns it into its greatest asset. This is not a film for everyone, but those who love Bateman's brand of comedy and films with an air of mean spiritedness will find a lot here to enjoy. It's also a scathing critique of the current wave of helicopter parenting and parents' desire to breed a generation of winners, no matter the cost to their child's psyche. While it could have used a little more of that, it's a minor complaint for a film that really goes for broke in being offensive to everyone. It firmly subscribes to the adage that if it's okay to make fun of someone or something, it has to be okay to make fun of everyone and everything, and that's something that more films could use a dose of.
Much like Bill Murray's terrific performance in Groundhog Day, there's no guarantee that Guy is going to do the right thing in the end, particularly once his motivations for competing in the tournament come to light. The highest praise I can offer Bateman is that he is his generation's Bill Murray. He possesses Murray's ability to be simultaneously charming and repulsive, and he is so wholly devoid of vanity as an actor that he radiates with the enviable comedic ability to make you root for him no matter what he's doing. Hahn is also very good, keeping pace with him at every step, and Allison Janney and Phillip Baker Hall do great work in very small roles. The real revelation of the film is young Chand, who delivers a performance well beyond his years, and takes just as well as he gives. Both Bateman's character and the actor have found a kindred spirit who can volley and spike the ball home, making him something of a fantastic discovery.
As far as the direction goes, Bateman does a nice job of keeping the film portions suitably devoid of color and life, and contrasting it with the television footage of the Spelling Bee which is brightly lit like a Public Television broadcast would be. It's a nice dichotomy, and one which he exploits well. He doesn't go for a ton of visual flair, which is also refreshing, considering how many first time directors want to show off like kids in a candy store. He keeps things moving and values the words as much as he does the technique, doing his writer proud by placing such a high emphasis on the dialogue. It's not the flashiest debut feature of all time, but it's certainly a very good one.
Although it does fall into a somewhat predictable pattern in the final ten minutes, Bad Words is still enough of a rebellious film to recommend. Formula works, that's how it became formula in the first place, and the smart writers and directors of this world are the ones who use it to their advantage, rather than letting it dictate how things should play out. It's not a perfect film, but it is hard-edged and cynical, with enough predictable redemption to make it agreeable to a large audience. It's a shame it hasn't found that audience, but like the best films that ride that line from Kingpin to all of the films of Mike Judge, it will find its audience with time, and they will cherish it for years to come.
GO Rating: 3.5/5
GO Rating: 3.5/5
[Images via BoxOfficeMojo]