Bateman and company turn "Bad Words" into good, mean fun
Even movie titles have their clichés. For instance, if you want to give your film an added sense of importance and grandiosity, throw "American" on the front of the title. And if you want to tell the audience that your comedy is edgy and mean – usually complete with a debauched character exposing adorable youths to a whole universe of cynicism, sex and four-letter words – all you have to do is simply slap "Bad" in the beginning of the name, usually with a profession ("Bad Santa," "Bad Teacher," "Bad Grandpa," etc.).
You can add "Bad Words" to that list as well, in both name and content. A bitter anti-hero lead exposes a precocious wide-eyed youth to a world of beer and boobs. Everyone else, from concerned parents to their kids, receives angry insults laced with profanity and arsenic. Nothing and nobody is sacred as our lead does to childhood innocence what Superman and Zod did to Metropolis in "Man of Steel."
And I laughed. Heaven help me, I laughed quite a bit.
Making his directorial debut, Jason Bateman casts himself as Guy Trilby, a venom-spewing 40-year-old professional proofreader climbing the ranks of the national children's spelling bee thanks to his prodigious memory and a loophole in the spelling bee rulebook. Contestants must not have graduated eighth grade; Guy is a middle school dropout. Commence the bee domination – complete with low-blow mind games and intimidation tactics – and parental outrage.
Even with the bee community in a harrumph, Guy still qualifies for the televised championship, hosted and organized by the increasingly disgruntled Philip Baker Hall and Allison Janney. There, in between effortlessly prattling off the spelling of "antidisestablishmentarianism" and shattering childhood dreams, the petulant man-child slowly begins bonding with a fellow competitor, 10-year-old Chaitanya Chopra (the contagiously enthusiastic Rohan Chand), over some late night mayhem. And maybe, just maybe, little Chaitanya will manage to soften Guy's black, callused heart and teach him a lesson.
Or maybe not, actually. Many similar R-rated comedies lose their edge in the final act in the name of hackneyed life lesson teachings and flimsy character redemption. "Bad Words" has some of that as well, but like a black cherry Warhead candy, it never quite loses its mean, sour flavor in all of it. It's actually quite refreshing.
Thanks to first-timer Andrew Dodge's script, however, it's both a blessing and a curse. Dodge writes some scathingly funny jokes and zingers for his anti-hero to dish out, but some of the humor bypasses mean, landing instead on unpleasant and condescending. Women in particular aren't given the best treatment, seemingly a constant target and almost unanimously portrayed as frumpy shrews, oddly dressed like early '90s sitcom moms, getting put in their place by Guy. Pardon me; there's also a prostitute. I rest my case.
The only real exception is Kathryn Hahn as a sad small-time journalist following Guy in the hopes of scooping his backstory and real mission in between awkward bedroom romps. Despite the talented comedic actress' efforts, though, she's just another down-on-her-luck character to be mocked.
In fact, the only person really allowed to be funny in Dodge's script is Guy, giving the film a mildly smug taste. It's a movie that's occasionally just a bit too enamored with its lead ass.
The good news for "Bad Words" is that as essentially a vulgar comedic showcase for its star, Bateman is up to the task. Usually stuck playing the quietly exasperated straight man, here Bateman gets to unleash his dry, sarcastic and unaffected delivery on some viciously entertaining lines. Think a Bill Murray character but with even less of a conscience or a social filter.
And yet even with all of his delicious despicability, Bateman manages to keep Guy a somewhat likable character. It's a nifty trick – similar to the one he pulls on "Arrested Development," with him somehow coming off as an affable, normal guy despite being just as dysfunctional, self-serving and prone to stupidity as his family – and one that the film desperately needs to stay funny and afloat.
As he proved in "Arrested Development" and his other comedy successes ("Horrible Bosses," for instance), Bateman also plays very well with others, especially here with young Chand. The two of them make for an uproarious and oddly charming comedy team, hitting the town, causing havoc in a grocery store and especially during the climax when the two face off in the bee's final round with a bridge – and then some – burned between them.
It's to Bateman and Chand's credit that, when the script dabbles in pathos, emotional notes that originally feel unearned, such as the sudden birth of their friendship, play out much better than expected. The same goes for the rest of the cast too, especially Bateman, Baker Hall and Hahn near the end.
Considering it's his feature directing debut, with only a couple of TV sitcom episodes under his belt (including "Arrested Development" and "Family Matters"), it's not surprising that Bateman makes a few missteps behind the camera. For some reason, almost the entire movie has a brown tint to it as though the film was previously used to filter coffee grounds. Combined with the out-of-time '80s and '90s costumes and sets, it's needlessly drab and disorienting.
Other than those ill-advised stylistic quirks, Bateman acquits himself nicely as a director. Considering the script, he ably tiptoes the tonal line between humorously mean and just plain mean, as well as balancing the biting comedy with just a dash of heart. He also keeps the jokes and the film as a whole moving sharply. It clocks in at 89 minutes, so it comes refreshingly without the bloat of most mainstream Hollywood comedies.
Most importantly, though, "Bad Words" is funny and fairly consistently so. It earns the word "Bad" in its title in mostly all of the right ways.
Theaters and showtimes for Bad Words
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