2 ½ out of 4 stars
Much of what we see in film and television today takes children out of the crosshairs, a result of nervous producers fearing for any backlash from making a child the victim of any joke.
Bad Words takes this taboo, among others and gleefully throws it out the window in the spirit of profane irreverence. This warm embrace of crassness works much to the movie’s favor, as it makes up for some major plot issues and tonal inconsistencies. A near flawless performance from Jason Bateman and a heartwarming buddy story top off this messy comedy and ultimately make it worth a watch.
Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) has discovered a major loophole in the rulebook of the Golden Quill National Spelling Bee that makes him eligible to compete. He has inexplicably decided to challenge prepubescent competitors for the win, all the while being chased by reporter Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), who is writing a story on his path to glory.
With dirty tactics in one pocket and an arrogant air in the other, Guy manages to tick off parents and teachers alike, including the bloodthirsty head of the competition (Allison Janney). Meanwhile a peppy young competitor named Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand) has decided that Guy is his newest and only friend, momentarily distracting Guy from the prize.
Right off the bat, this story suffers from a lack of focus. First time screenwriter Andrew Dodge seems to have bitten off more than he can chew when it comes to plot and character development. The genius central conceit successfully keeps the audience in suspense waiting for the reason why Guy does what he does. But it nearly becomes a side plot next to the many other unnecessary plot points. And while the blooming friendship between Guy and Chaitanya ultimately proves to be uplifting, it distracts from the most interesting ideas Dodge has to offer.
So that’s the bad news.
The good news is this movie is really funny. Dodge cunningly implements profane language and naughty situational humor against a seemingly harmless backdrop and allows laughs to arise from the spot-on reactions to Guy’s caustic obscenities rather than illicit cheap laughs. Dodge risks just as much by placing children at the center of these gags and mines comedic gold by daring to write outside the moral boundaries in this way.
Much credit must be given to Jason Bateman, however, in his directorial debut. While he clearly is still finding a voice as a director (the slo-mo montages and dramatic lighting seem a bit mismatched), his best moments arise when he embraces the comedy of this comedy. His treatment of broadcast footage is suspenseful and clever. And his direction of actors in the more humorous moments shows a keen sense of comic timing.
Bateman pulls back on the throttle just a bit too often when it comes to his tonal calibration. The serious moments are dead serious, so much so that the film struggles to recover its pacing and destroys some potentially strong comedic moments as a result. The score occasionally fights with the story as well, attempting to have its comic cake and dramatically eat it too.
Fortunately, Bateman’s control over the project has allowed him so much leeway as an actor that he has gone hog wild in the lead role, much to the film’s benefit. He gives one of his strongest performances to date, never letting up on the arrogance and acidity of Guy’s nature. But the veneer that he has put up has so much behind it, some sense of damage and pain carries from start to finish. It is a marvelous performance.
Allison Janney and Kathryn Hahn have established themselves as two of the most reliable actors working today, but they are just underutilized and underwritten here. Hahn’s character, by all rights, should not even exist in the story (be thankful she is here though, as it provides for an outright hilarious moment between her and Bateman). The strongest supporting performances come from the younger cast, who play off of Guy’s ridiculousness with aplomb. Rohan Chand in particular manages a well-calibrated balance of charm and shrewdness that make his character incredibly endearing.
Recent forays into crude comedy have worked well thanks to consistent characterization and laser-sharp focus on plot. Just look at the success of Bridesmaids, The World’s End, or 21 Jump Street. Bad Words could have used just as strong of a throughline as these managed to achieve, not to mention a generally stronger sense of attention to detail (although this lack of attention provides a possibly purposeful visual gag with the contestants’ name tags; watch carefully). But thanks to Bateman’s ability to anchor the piece as an actor as well as some truly original and jaw-dropping laughs, the entire endeavor proves worthwhile in the end for a bit of good old fashioned, rough and rowdy escapism.
Mark McCarver was born and raised in Houston, Texas and has been involved in theater and film since he was a kid. He spent the past few years acting and directing across Texas before moving to Washington, DC in the fall of 2012 to get a taste of the East Coast’s entertainment industry. Mark holds a BA in Drama from Trinity University and trained at the Syracuse University – London Drama Program and Shakespeare’s Globe. He is a company member with Half Mad Theatre in Washington.