Bad Words (2013) / Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for crude and sexual content, language and brief nudity
Running Time: 89 min.
Cast: Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Rohan Chand, Philip Baker Hall, Allison Janney, Ben Falcone, Steve Witting
Director: Jason Bateman
Screenplay: Andrew Dodge
Review published March 31, 2014
Bad Words joins the ranks of other "Bad"-titled, raunchy comedies, which includes Bad Santa and Bad Teacher, all comedies centering around an obnoxious, misanthropic central character. Like Bad Santa, it includes an unlikely friendship that occurs between a young boy and a corrupting influence of a morally outrageous adult miscreant. And also just like those films, there is a soft spot that develops underneath all of the mean-spirited humor that leads to a sentimental final act in which the self-loathing grouch finally realizes that some of those people around him he perpetually insults aren't really so bad after all.
Jason Bateman (Identity Thief, Disconnect) not only stars, but makes his directorial debut, playing a 40-year-old professional proofreader named Guy Trilby, who has been busy of late exploiting a loophole in the rules of a circuit of spelling contests that will eventually lead to him competing in the Golden Quill National Spelling Bee. The loophole? Contestants can't have moved on past the 8th grade, and as Guy never did pass the 8th grade as a youth, he still conforms to the rules. With a blog journalist (Hahn, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) paying his fees in order to cover his exploits in tow, Guy is making a name for himself, and not a good one, besting the pre-teen kids at every contest.
Bateman does a decent job with the tone and pace of this independent film, beautifully shot by Ken Seng (who worked with Bateman on Disconnect). It's a rare indie comedy that has a sumptuously pleasing visual aesthetic, so kudos to Bateman for his commitment to a good-looking comedy. He has a game cast, with some good supporting performances from the adults, though the dialogue written for the kids does give their delivery a bit of an artificial feel, most notable in the rather large-ish supporting turn from the ever-chipper Rohan Chand (Jack and Jill, Lone Survivor), who plays a young Indian-American rival at the bee whose ethnic makeup becomes the butt of most of Guy's mean-spirited jabs.
The jokes mostly stem from Guy offending the sensibilities of those around him, so mileage will certainly vary as to how much you find brash remarks and actions to tickle your funny bone. Compounding the problems, first-timer Andrew Dodge's screenplay isn't as funny as the performances on top of it.
Contrivances do abound, but you end up just going with the flow for the humor's sake. There's very little rationale as to why Guy can spell pretty much anything thrown at him, or any explanation as to how he ended up learning the spelling of just about every word in existence. He's just a genius, that's all we're offered, and all we need to know. However, you do eventually come to understand just what is motivating him to show up all of these kids for a chance at the big prize. What we don't ever know is why he has to be such a jerk about it.
It's a bit of a throwback film to the kind of R-rated profanity-laced comedies you might have found a decade before. Despite never gaining the momentum in laughs to make it a great adult comedy, the sporadic giggles are abundant enough to eke out a modest recommendation for those who like jokey efforts that revolve around excessively lewd, crude and rude behavior.
©2014 Vince Leo