Bateman Works Blue In Featherweight "Bad Words"

Jason Bateman’s comedic gifts are undeniable, but “Bad Words” – his directorial debut – makes it plainly clear as to why he’s been typecast as a straight man – straight man to Will Arnett and company in TV’s “Arrested Development,” straight man to a cavalcade of oddball suburbanites in Mike Judge’s criminally underrated “Extract,” and straight man to Melissa McCarthy in last year’s surprise hit “Identity Thief.” As an actor, Bateman has a warm, neighborly charisma that cuts through the absurdity around him, even when he’s partaking in it. But when he alone is tasked with playing an irredeemable jackass – as he is for the entirety of “Bad Words” – there’s no one there to break his fall.

Bateman stars as Guy Trilby, a misanthropic, possibly sociopathic 40 year-old who has weaseled his way into a spelling bee on a technicality. Guy never graduated from 8th grade, so he thinks of entry into the bee as his birthright, and he seems to get off on verbally abusing the rational adults standing in his way. “It’s about the kids,” they lament, to which he responds litigiously, as if his brain has fallen out and been reinserted backwards. There’s nothing human about the way in which he interacts with the people around him, much less a confused reporter named Jenny (the reliably terrific Kathryn Hahn), whom he treats like a sex object.

Upon making it into the Golden Quill – the film’s version of the Scripps National Spelling Bee – Guy meets an excitable, wide-eyed 10 year-old named Chaitanya (Rohan Chand). Here the film finds its primary conceit as an occasionally amusing riff on “Bad Santa,” but where Billy Bob Thornton possessed the kind of gruffness to believably – dare I say charmingly? – expose a child to bad language, booze, and boobs, Bateman just doesn’t have it in him. He recites writer Andrew Dodge’s words with the appropriate amount of gusto, but they’re so absurdly mean-spirited as to summon no real dramatic heft. We don’t believe it for a second.

The film’s biggest problem is that its laughs – of which there are a few good ones – are too easy. By leaning so heavily on the “40 year-old says mean things to a child” card, “Bad Words” fails to build any organic, story-related jokes, eventually desensitizing us to Guy’s outlandish behavior. This in turn blunts the impact of some of the later gags. It doesn’t help that the wafer thin reason for Guy acting like he does – which the film inexplicably treats as a twist – is embarrassingly glossed over, which plays as Bateman and Dodge doubling down on its terribleness. “We realize this plot point isn’t very good, but we need to do it anyway.” It’s a shame that all-star character actor Philip Baker Hall finds himself caught in the middle of it.

Bateman’s direction is neither here nor there, the only substantial directorial mark being an odd green tint that permeates the scenes that are naturally lit. Ultimately, the film’s dialogue is so crude, its star so inherently – and paradoxically – likable, and its plot so lightweight that it essentially cancels itself out. The end result is like the wispy, useless puff of smoke that comes from the snuffing of a candle. It’s there, you can smell it, but it serves no purpose other than to remind you of the more interesting things – fire, heat, wax – that went into that anticlimactic moment. Like that puff of smoke, “Bad Words” is here and then gone, unremarkable to its core.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: March 14, 2014 (Limited)
Studio: Focus Features
Director: Jason Bateman
Screenwriter: Andrew Dodge
Starring: Jason Bateman, Rohan Chand, Kathryn Hahn, Allison Janney, Phillip Baker Hall, Rachael Harris
MPAA Rating: R (for crude and sexual content, language, and brief nudity)