Thursday, September 11, 2014
Movie Review: "Bad Words"
Starring Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Rohan Chand, Ben Falcone, Philip Baker Hall and Allison Janney
Directed by Jason Bateman
There’s a well known quote, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” That’s especially true when it comes to dark comedies, as they can easily push the limits of good taste right over a cliff. To the credit of Jason Bateman, making his directorial debut in “Bad Words,” he occasionally comes close to the edge but consistently finds a way to avert disaster.
Having built up a filmography in recent years of playing generally decent and well-intentioned guys on TV in “Arrested Development” and in movies such as “Identity Thief” and “Horrible Bosses,” it’s a little bit of a shock to see Bateman portray such a jerk in “Bad Words.” He is a funny jerk, though, so he’s got that going for him. That actually helps keep the audience on his side, which is imperative when your character is a 40-year-old man looking to defeat young children in spelling bees — by any means necessary. As the movie slowly reveals, that dogged and seemingly misguided determination in his character is more driven by hurt, rather than mean-spiritedness.
Bateman stars as Guy Trilby (who is employed as a proofreader), an admitted underachiever in education, having never advanced beyond the eighth grade. He uses that schooling deficiency to exploit a loophole in the rules of the National Quill Spelling Bee, allowing him to compete against children generally a quarter of his age. His participation doesn’t sit well with anyone, be it parents, the spelling bee officials or the competitors themselves. But Trilby doesn’t care. Instead, he responds to everyone with a sharp tongue and is exceptionally quick with insults. That acerbic wit is aimed at adults and children alike, with the script by Andrew Dodge generating laughter frequently, although you might feel a bit guilty along the way. Case in point: Trilby’s devious new use for a ketchup packet.
One reporter (Kathryn Hahn) serves as a media sponsor for Trilby as he makes his way through the regional bees to reach the national competition, with the hopes of getting a story as to why he’s so determined to win. He even grudgingly — actually, make that very grudgingly — befriends a lonely 10-year-old competitor (Rohan Chand, in a winning performance), who is exceedingly cheerful and in desperate need of a friend.
Setting much of the action in the world of competitive spelling bees filled with overbearing parents and stuffy, egotistical competition officials makes for some easy and predictable comedic targets. The movie does a better job of setting up the pins than knocking them down, with the story’s seemingly black heart lightening up down the stretch. Still, it never turns into a maudlin affair that tries to make its lead character learn the error of his ways. In Trilby’s world, there’s no time for apologies, even if it means crushing a bunch of middle schoolers’ dreams.
(Rated R for crude and sexual content, language and brief nudity.)