Release: Friday, March 28, 2014
When a child uses choice language around the house, they run not from their parents, but rather away from the bar of Irish Spring they know will soon be in their mouth. The expression ‘I am going to wash your mouth out with soap’ may be timeless, but it’s never quite the deterrent parents think it should be, because. . . . . let’s face it. Most of us grow up, become well-adjusted and live a long life of swearing our asses off. Not really, but hopefully the point has been made.
Harmful (i.e. ‘bad’) words are an inescapable commodity, and most of us at some point have used them, maybe even aimed them at people we are nearby or perhaps talking directly to. But why did we use them — was it out of frustration? Or were we dropping the f-bomb because we were so thrilled about something? Did we not like the way we were being treated so we assaulted those who caused us pain with colorful and spiteful language? Context and intent is everything.
Jason Bateman decides to exploit these concepts in Bad Words, his directorial feature debut. Starring as the film’s definitive anti-hero, a 40-year-old miscreant named Guy Trilby determined to become the nation’s best speller, Bateman knew in order for the material to reach its highest comedic potential he would have to step in front of the camera as well. He could not have made a better move, for his performance is unquestionably the best work he’s ever turned in. By a mile.
Every action he makes and every word he hisses at those around him is a calculated effort of a possible sociopath in the making. Just because he doesn’t swear all of the time (even though it’s still a lot of the time), it’s to whom he speaks and throws insults and the timing of his actions that really matter. His masterful understanding of social context and a person’s ability to mask their intentions are chief among the many reasons Bateman deserves much credit. In this performance, he does his best to make us not like him but damn it he’s still too great to not (quietly) root for when truths eventually do become revealed.
Bad Words epitomizes situational comedy, or at least comes extremely close. Turn to any number of scenes in which Guy is a physically dominant opponent. We’re not talking about NBA basketball here, we are watching The Golden Quill Spelling Bee competition. As a full-grown adult, he’s in the wrong place and not only does he realize this, he doesn’t care. He wants to be the best at something, and knows he is also competing well within the rules. (A technicality based on a graduation date allows him to participate.)
There’s an equal number of scenes in which his intellect goes virtually unmatched by his diminutive, prepubescent competitors. He’ll try anything to gain an advantage, and I do mean anything. Thanks to Bateman’s incredibly funny and self-deprecating performance, Guy Trilby turns out to be a man with an alarming lack of morality; a conscience so twisted he’ll expose one of his ten-year-old rivals to his first pair of real boobs (to prove they all have nipples) before he offers up an honest answer to his journalist travel buddy, Jenny (Kathryn Hahn) about why he’s committing himself to this spelling bee. He maintains no kid will be a match for his sky-high I.Q.
You might think this guy is a complex character reading this review, when in fact it’s quite the opposite. Bateman’s dedication to keeping things simple, but earnest, crafts Bad Words into a better picture than it might have been in the hands of a director just coming off the high of directing an epic superhero film, or a director whose own lofty ambitions often run away from them. It’s what makes the character better, too. Guy Trilby has one thing to prove, and that’s. . . . . . .well that’s a spoiler. One gets the sense there is a deep pain he is hiding; when the truth is revealed we know it’s a basic, fundamental issue but it completely fits. The development proves to be great debut screenwriting from Andrew Dodge.
Despite things maintaining a straightforward procedure, that’s not to say the movie lacks interest. Bad Words instead allows its low-key status to enhance character’s presences, especially with how they are introduced. En route to the competition, Guy encounters what he initially considers the world’s most annoying brat, an Indian boy named Chaitanya (Rohand Chand). Eventually this inquisitive and impossibly intelligent kid destroys his ill-begotten misconceptions via a series of misadventures they both share during the final rounds of competition. Chaitanya is, inexplicably, looking for a friend in this obnoxious 40-year-old and the two have a bit of fun before they must get down to business. . . and spell the hell out of some words.
Bateman may take a fairly predictable route, and the final rounds of this highly unusual competition make for a foregone conclusion. Such are the traits of a film created by an accomplished actor turning his attention towards a new aspect of filmmaking — there are growing pains. Fortunately, as predictable as some of the routes are they can’t be called completely safe. That is certainly one word that does not apply here, as the proceedings often take a turn to the dark and depressing. One thing we’re not going to feel in this sitting is safe — at least, not with Bateman’s character lurking around. But that’s a good thing.
For all of its rushed third act and its many foreseeable developments, Bad Words is a thoroughly entertaining comedy that doesn’t slip nearly as much as other debut attempts have in the past. (I am not Guy Trilby so I won’t call these people out by name.) It is a laugh riot in a number of scenes, surprisingly heartwarming in others and is a great example of an actor successfully bridging the gap between acting and directing.
Recommendation: Bad Words is intelligent, raunchy, insulting and touching, often in the same scene. It is a film of an impressive quality that often beckons comparisons to Bad Santa. Is it any coincidence the two share the same first word? Methinks not. But in all seriousness, yes. This movie, it’s pretty much the shit. Go see it. And no, it’s not nerdy if you find spelling bees interesting. That’s why I saw it. . . . . . . . . . . . .
Running Time: 89 mins.
Quoted: “Your chair called me for help. . .it’s like help me, it’s so heavy.”
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