After a career resurgence thanks to the phenomenon that became Arrested Development Jason Bateman made the successful leap into films. It’s only natural that his next step would be directing. Bad Words, while slight, shows his adeptness behind the camera and he provides himself with one of his best leading roles in quite sometime. As fun, and funny, as it is to watch Bateman play a foul mouth curmudgeon willing to do whatever it takes to win a kids spelling bee, the story never quite pays off as it should and the characters never fully form.
From writer Andrew Dodge, Bad Words tells the story of Guy Trilby’s (Jason Bateman) insistence on winning The National Spelling Bee, thanks to a loophole that he never completed school past the eighth grade. Needing a sponsorship from a news outlet, he makes a deal with journalist Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn) that he’ll eventually spill his secret motivation if she foots the bill for the trip. Between his arrogant sense of self and fondness for dirty language, Jenny quickly learns that he doesn’t necessarily intend to keep up his end of the bargain. This central mysteriousness about who Guy is, where he comes from, and, most importantly, what’s driving him on his strange quest is the core mystery of the film. The problem is that it leaves Guy as a shell of a character who’s only saved by Bateman’s excellent performance.
It’s also unfortunate that those around him, namely Hahn as Jenny and Allison Janney as Dr. Bernice Deagan, the spelling bee’s director, are similarly undercooked. But if the story isn’t as developed as it could be, Bateman is wise to focus on the foul dribble that constantly escapes Guys mouth and the cruel jokes he plays on his adolescent competitors — including one where he tricks a girl into believing she’s “entered womanhood.”
His character’s redemption — such a louse must always have a redemption — comes through his offbeat relationship with fellow contestant, and elementary school student, Chaitainya Chopra (Rohan Chand) whose father has left him on his own in some sort of attempt to make him a man. Guy takes the “lesson” to the next level. It’s an obvious attempt to mine even more vulgar humor out of the film — which it definitely achieves — but it’s also a way for Guy to come to some sort of realization about something, anything. He’s so closed off for the whole film that it can sometimes undermine the stories’ momentum.
Luckily it’s funny. Really funny. Bateman may not have much substance to work with but he uses what he does have well, while also managing to give a great performance in the process. It won’t be the feel-bad-comedy of the year but it’s a solid effort for those who enjoy their humor served foul.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5