Thursday, December 01, 2016
"Bad Words" is Jason Bateman's first directorial effort. It's the story of bitter loser Guy Trilby (Bateman), a 40-year-old on a mission to insinuate himself into the Golden Quill, a national spelling-bee contest for elementary-school kids. Taking advantage of an obscure loophole, Trilby, who is a nasty piece of work (think: a Tourette's-afflicted Bill Murray: a smartass, and vulgarly so), plows his way through minor regional spelling bees until he's able to get placed in the nationals. A reporter named Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn) follows Trilby on his mad quest, but is unable to uncover his basic motivations, despite her desperate efforts to buy him dinners and to engage in weird, quasi-violent, "Don't look at me!" sex. When Trilby hits the nationals, he meets kind-hearted Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), a friendless, nerdy, nine-year-old ingénue who somehow manages to become hard-hearted Trilby's buddy. This odd friendship undergoes several twists and turns; as with other spelling-bee movies, most of the suspense occurs at the very end of the bee. Does Trilby win? Does he reveal his motivations to Widgeon? Does he let go of his anger at life and the world?
The one big revelation in "Bad Words" is that Jason Bateman—whose career has largely been about playing likable goofs, WASP-y nebbishes, and generally low-key characters—proves he can play a consummate dickhead. The scene in which Trilby brutally insults the vagina of an angry mother who think's it's unfair for an adult to compete in a kids' bee is hilariously vulgar, utterly politically incorrect, and a joy to watch. Most of the movie's script delivers some level of raunch, but unlike the way it was with "Sausage Party," the filth is much better scripted, and it's much more effective because Bateman's vulgar Trilby has Rohan Chand's sweet, innocent Chaitanya Chopra as a foil.
"Bad Words" puts me in mind of other adult/child comedies I've watched or rewatched over the past couple of years: the father/son dynamic between Aaron Eckhart and Cameron Bright in "Thank You for Smoking," the weirdly platonic May-September relationship between Joel Murray and Tara Lynn Barr in "God Bless America," and more recently, the old-man-young-man bonding experience between Bill Murray and Jaeden Lieberher in "St. Vincent." These movies all have a common essence: the adult role model has maturity issues and is a corrupting influence on the child, but the adult's corruption of the child is forgivable because the adult (almost always a he) also possesses certain redeeming qualities. "Bad Words" is no exception to this paradigm.
Bateman the director is almost as unpretentious as Clint Eastwood behind the camera: he allows the actors to do their thing, rarely interrupting the action and dialogue with weird and self-conscious camera tricks (well, there is that one kick-in-the-nuts scene, near the end, that gets a 1980s-style repeat-cut treatment so that we see the foot slamming the crotch again and again and again). His editing and visuals show his interest in getting out of the way.
The story of "Bad Words," written by Andrew Dodge, moves along at a slow-but-decent pace, keeping us on a steady IV drip of profanity to hold our attention. My main complaint, though, is that the story falls down at the very end, when the predictable, and implausible, climax drags on for far too long, like a bad joke that has worn out its welcome. Come to think of it, most of the story arc is predictable (I figured out the "twist" well before the third reel), but the acting and the salty dialogue save the script from mediocrity.
Professional critics seem to be divided over "Bad Words"; I side with the thumbs-up crowd, even while recognizing that the movie's conclusion could have used some rewrites to streamline the comedy. Most of the movie is gloriously nasty, and even if the filmmakers fumbled the ending a bit, it's obvious that the story has its heart in the right place.