Film: Jason Bateman’s ‘Bad Words’ is Pretty Good

By Will Ashton || @thewillofash
Bad Words
| Directed by Jason Bateman | Rated R

20-bad-wordsMuch like many, many actors before him, Jason Bateman has decided that he, too, wants to be a director.

To be fair, though, Bateman has been understudying as a TV director for several years. But, with this week’s Bad Words, he finally steps up to the bat and makes his first film as a helmer. How does he fare, though, in the job that has made and broken several actors in the past? Pretty good, I must say. At least, so far.

In addition to directing, Bateman also stars as Guy Trilby, an eighth-grade dropout who, at age 40, has decided to enter the National Spelling Bee with an aim to win thanks to a loophole in their eligibility. Taking down kids left and right, he makes his way to the Golden Quill National Spelling Bee aided by reporter Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), his sponsor who, much like everyone else, is trying to figure out just why the hell he is doing this in the first place.

Along the way, he also, begrudgingly, becomes friends with 10-year-old fellow contestant Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), which ends up, mildly, muddling up his plans.

What I truly appreciate about Bad Words is that they make Guy much more than your average asshole. He’s clearly smart, as the film heavily implies that he is an actual genius, or at least well near it, and uses his asshole-ness to its advantage, even if that hurts everyone and anyone else along the way.

But, more than anything, I like that Bateman has finally been able to push himself away from playing Michael Bluth, for once. He really needed a role like this in his career. Thankfully, not only is he up for the task, but he puts in one of his strongest performances to date. What makes his character so appealing is that there is constantly an air of mystery about him, which Bateman successfully adds both behind and in front of the camera and screenwriter Andrew Dodge draws out on the page.

Although Bad Words is constantly funny, it is never truly hilarious, which is something that ultimately hurts it from being a full-out good movie. It has all the elements to get there. Yet it, for some reason, never quite pulls itself together to be anything more than just a pretty good comedy. One that, if it was on HBO or at Redbox, you’d certainly enjoy, but would be hard pressed to remember in the next couple days.

I feel that this is mainly due to Dodge and his inability to stretch the script beyond the stereotypical conventions of this R-rated comedy genre, especially in its third act.

Now, don’t get me wrong here: Dodge has certainly written a good script, and one that is rather clever and likes to pack a punch when necessary. And yet, it also seems to lack the confidence—even though it is more than willing to be as foul-mouthed as possible—to truly push the comedy over the edge into being a full-on black comedy, perhaps in fear that its main character will become too unlikable. A worthy concern, to be sure, and, in the long run, perhaps is in everyone’s best interest. After all, at times, it’s best to play it safe rather than run the risk of making your main character a completely unlikable prick.

There are certainly moments, though, where it starts to go into this territory and, as a result, usually produces some of the movie’s best jokes. One in particular, involving ketchup at the tournament, strikes this balance of mean-spirited foul play and funny shenanigans quite well. Yet, for about the other three-fourths of the movie, it never truly crosses that line that would essentially make it a truly good, mean spirited R-rated comedy.

If, when watching any commercials or trailer for this movie or even just reading the title, you were reminded of 2003’s Bad Santa, you would not be mistaken. Although I have not heard either Dodge or Bateman confirm it in any interviews, it appears that that movie’s foul-minded mentality was a heavily influence on not just the protagonist, if you will, of this movie, but its general story thread as well.

Now, this is not to say that it completely ripped off that movie, because it didn’t, but the comparisons can’t help but bring the movie down a couple notches. Especially since that movie is over a decade old now. Nevertheless, though, Bad Words is still able to create enough spunk and wit around its curiosity in its main character to make this could-have-been one-joke movie work.

As a director, my feelings towards Jason’s work fall in line with what A.A. Dowd wrote in his review of the film for The A.V. Club: it’s “competent but without much flair.” While I would argue that Bateman does have a little more flair than Dowd gives him credit for—his decision to immerse the film in a greenish, yellow-brown color grading, as well as several slow-mo, fast-mo sequences (no, not like the ones in 300 or 300: Rise of an Empire) throughout that are actually pretty well done and nowhere near as annoying as they could have been, represent a filmmaker that has a little more in mind, stylistically, than your average actor-turn-director—he, generally, seems to direct the movie in a typical, if not particularly exciting, manner.

Bateman certainly has a strong sense of pacing, as the movie knows how to get in and get out in a brisk 89 minutes, as well as how to keep the movie’s mean-spirited mentality in balance, but never overboard. But, at least when it comes to camera staging and use of actors, he doesn’t do anything quite outstanding, just, as Dowd said, competent. Which is fine, I will never knock anyone for being competent, but I feel that, in the years to come, Bateman will only grow as a filmmaker.

While only sporadically funny, and not quite as clever and witty as it thinks or hopes to be, Bad Words is still a pretty good little comedy that shows, hopefully, good things to come from Bateman, both behind and in front of the camera. Now, so long as he doesn’t keep milking this Michael Bluth thing, we’re all cool.

Although, looking at his IMDB page, I am reminded that he has Horrible Bosses 2 coming out in the near future…oh well.

  1. CMrok93 said:

    Good review Will. Great to see Bateman cut loose for once and just have a ball with the material he’s given.

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