By Simon Miraudo
September 23, 2014
Jason Bateman bets on himself in Bad Words, his feature directorial debut and understandable attempt to solidify his forever-on-the-cusp-of-assured career. Longevity is not promised to anyone in Hollywood, and Bateman’s pre-Arrested Development, post-Teen Wolf Too work is a testament to that. Take solace, sir. If the flame of stardom is ever extinguished, you can always fall back on making black comedies like this; features that are fierce, funny, and full of four-letter words.
Bateman plays Guy Trilby, an irascible a-hole who competes in the prestigious National Quill Spelling Bee thanks to a loophole in their rulebook (apparently no one thought to specify an age restriction). His motives remain mysterious to the Bee’s bitter end, though the chip on his shoulder – and his dickishness – is readily apparent. Guy ascends to the finals, armed with genius-level intellect and a passion for tormenting his prepubescent competition. He slings racial epithets at friendly competitor Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), hatef***s Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), the journalist and sponsor trailing his curious mission, and is as offensive as possible to all the furious stage parents, upsetting everyone, audience potentially included. (Not all viewers will come around to Guy’s side when his reasoning is finally revealed. There are some bells that can’t be unrung.)
Bad Words is certainly assured. Bateman the director knows especially well how to deploy Bateman the actor, amplifying Michael Bluth’s narcissism and unscrewing his filter so that insults once merely muttered can be relayed instead with gusto. Some performers have a specific timing that feels acutely tuned to our personal frequency. Jason Bateman is that to me. He makes me laugh a lot, and in this, he stings with comic precision. (Geddit?) A shame then that the script, by Andrew Dodge, should rest on the easy slur in almost every instance. Imagine what Armando Iannucci, the man behind Veep and The Thick Of It (the gold standard for inventive swearing), could have devised for Bateman to spit. The leaden direction doesn’t always help; the sepia-tinged cinematography gives Bad Words a grave, solemn vibe, and it doesn’t mesh with the farcical devolution of the Bee in the final act (which is really begging for the light touch of Christopher Guest).
Bateman isn’t one to share the wealth, either: he doesn’t just have the best lines; he has almost all the lines. Compare this to In a World, Lake Bell’s own directorial debut. You can sense how excited she is to show off her funny friends. Everyone wins. In the case of Bad Words, there are winners, and there are losers. Hahn is very good as the put upon Jenny (who we immediately identify as a journalist because of her unkempt hair) and Chand is cute, but few others get a chance to shine here as Bateman constantly does. Even Allison Janney barely registers in a too-brief role as the Bee’s director. Okay, kudos to Bateman for snagging such a talent for such a brief turn. Still, it sure inspires cognitive dissonance when a film does away with its finest actor after only a handful of uneventful scenes. Her presence on any show or movie ultimately has a kind of ‘Poochie’ effect: whenever she’s not on screen you just expect everyone else to be wondering, “Where’s Janney?”, hoping that somehow spirits her back.
Bad Words will be available from Quickflix on September 25, 2014.