Bad Words, the directorial debut of Arrested Development’s Jason Bateman, probably shouldn’t work as well as it does. Its concept – a grown man forcing his way into a kid’s spelling bee – is a bit flimsy. Its characters are written a little thin. And it can languish on at times, like a one-note Saturday Night Live sketch stretching a joke too far.
But the great equalizer in comedy is always was it funny, and in the case of Bad Words the answer to that question is yes. You know, for the most part…
Bateman shows promise in his first time out as director, notably in his ability to coax the ever elusive Bateman into the lead role. How does he do it? What would normally constitute a tremendous act of hubris actually pays off quite handsomely, as without Bateman’s rude, sarcastic charm Bad Words would crumble under the weight of its rather unlikeable protagonist, the always offensive Guy Tribly.
Guy lets us know early on that he’s never been one to think things through. His decision to bully his way into a spelling bee and alienate anyone foolish enough to start a conversation with him was apparently brought on by some recent slight, but the details as to what that may have been are left purposefully vague.
In truth, it’s a brilliant little plot device concocted by screenwriter Andrew Dodge, adding a welcome twist of intrigue to the proceedings to replace some of the doubt surrounding the film’s outlandish premise.
And that’s important, because it dispatches enough questions early on to put Bateman’s performance firmly in the driver’s seat. Watching Guy unleashed onto an unsuspecting group of parents and children is the true crux of the movie, even if there are times it can straddle that line of taking things too far.
Along for the ride is Guy’s travelling companion Jenny (Kathryn Hahn), a reporter from an online news outlet who’s sponsoring his exploits on the condition he answer some of her questions, like why join a spelling bee at the age of 40?
For her part, Hahn is great. Someone out there needs to start giving her some meatier roles. But her character is rather poorly developed and it’s never quite clear why she’s enabling this guy. Is putting up with this jerk really worth the few extra page views? Surely her money could be better spent elsewhere.
She’s also sleeping with him, one of the more groan inducing additions to the film. Part of that seems to be an admirable attempt to give Hahn a bit more comedic material, but Jenny would have played a much funnier foil without it, or so the first 15 minutes of the film would indicate.
Through his travels, Guy also meets a precocious young boy named Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), who just can’t seem to get enough of Guy’s abuse. Naturally, Bad Words gets a lot of mileage out of placing Guy opposite this impressionable young kid and letting his horrible influence run wild.
There are times when this gets a bit cumbersome. This sort of storyline is nothing we haven’t seen before – irresponsible man-child is befriended by a lonely kid and grows up a bit – and there’s nothing here that would suggest it’s any better than the previous versions. But it is funny in that did-he-just-say-that sort of way and the script wisely keeps its edge even after Guy has his inevitable change of heart.
As for the ending, whether or not that big mystery pays off is another matter. My guess is that the final answer won’t come as too big a surprise to anyone paying attention. But Bad Words is awful in all the ways a black comedy should be. The most important thing here is that it’ll make you laugh, even if this is the kind of guy you’d never want to run into in real life.
Final Score: 3/5