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‘Bad Words’ an intermittently funny would-be nasty comedy with unearned heart

bad words poster

Bad Words

Written by Andrew Dodge

Directed by Jason Bateman

USA, 2014

One of the mainstays of the holiday season is Chuck Jones’ masterful animated short adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which manages to both be a clever embrace of everything that Christmas embodies in its secular form and to be a nasty piece of work about a grumpy so-and-so who eventually turns good. The feature-length take on the same story, by director Ron Howard, is one of the worst blights of recent holiday-film entries, precisely because if you spend 2 hours with the Grinch, he either becomes totally intolerable or must be given a sufficient enough backstory to explain why he’s such…well, a Grinch. And the only reason why the Grinch is so memorable is that he’s inexplicably mean, but in short bouts; the longer we spend with him, the less appealing he becomes. This is a lesson, tangential or not, that Jason Bateman hasn’t learned in his feature directorial debut, Bad Words, in which we are meant to spend far too much time with a cheerfully awful person, right up until we sympathize with his plight.

Bateman stars in the film, playing Guy Trilby, a 40-year old Ohio middle-school dropout who, for reasons initially unknown, exploits a loophole in the system and becomes a contestant in a nationwide spelling bee competition. He’s aided and abetted by a web-based reporter (Kathryn Hahn), whose site backs Guy’s play precisely so she can tell his presumably strange story of why he’d want to win a spelling bee when all of his competition are barely approaching their teenage years. Once Guy arrives at the nationals, he unwillingly becomes friends with Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), a 10-year old competitor who compensates for his loneliness–his father forces Chaitanya to be self-sustaining on the trip to build character–by being extremely smart and adept at spelling.

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The screenplay by Andrew Dodge does not mince…well, words, from the opening scene, where Guy essentially gets off on being insulting and confrontational with the kids on stage, their parents, and the spelling bee judges, dropping every manner of profanity with unrestrained glee. And for a while, it’s funny to see Bateman play against type; instead of being the henpecked straight man, he’s the raging id for once, and clearly enjoying himself. However, as soon as Guy finds his way to Pasadena for the nationals, unable to avoid Chaitanya no matter how hard he tries, it becomes painfully obvious how, in broad strokes, the film will end: we will, in discovering why Guy is going forth on this inane quest, feel bad for the dude, or at least feel something for him. Oh, and maybe the reason why we only get to learn anything about Guy and Chaitanya, among the competition, is because they’ll be the final two competing? Maybe.

For a while, what makes Bad Words different from other indie comedies is its unrepentantly nasty streak. There are a few brief moments where it feels like this film will sidestep the inevitable mawkish finale by following in the footsteps of Bad Santa, which never truly tried to make its lead character lovably awful. That Billy Bob Thornton character was just noxious and pathetic, and deliberately so; that it did not attempt to soften the lead lent to the film’s charm. Such is not the case here, and as much as Bateman clearly relishes the chance to be mean, that initial meanness ends up being an albatross the script can’t shake. By the time we find out exactly what has inspired Guy to go up against crazily passionate parents, stickler judges, and spelling bee directors (Philip Baker Hall and Alison Janney among them), and mostly helpless kids, it’s too late; this is not a character worth expending any sympathy for, and by the end, we are supposed to find his R-rated behavior in the presence of a kid all in good fun. It’s not for a lack of trying on the cast’s part, though Chand sometimes feels too precocious and aware in his performance as a good-hearted nerd; no script that begins this intentionally cruel could succeed in inspiring genuine feeling by the end.

badwords_aFor a feature debut, Jason Bateman acquits himself adequately behind the camera; the few moments of self-aware style stand out amidst an otherwise flatly, if not  poorly, directed film. But Bad Words, like so many indie comedies, is not a director’s film, but a writer’s. It’s been noted that the script for Bad Words landed on the vaunted Black List a few years ago, thus garnering the attention of the industry. And it’s got a unique hook: middle-aged guy competes in a middle-school spelling bee. But beyond the high-concept idea and the cheerily R-rated tone, this movie has little else aside from a noxious spirit in search of a heart three sizes too big.

— Josh Spiegel


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