Directed by: Jason Bateman
Released on: March 21st, 2014
Grade: 2.5 out of 5 meatballs
Reviewed by: Justin Tucker
Jason Bateman, who usually is the straight man in a comedic ensemble, plays against type and takes the spotlight for himself while making his directorial debut with Bad Words. He stars as Guy Tribley, a crass, 40-year-old borderline sociopath who exploits loopholes that allow him to compete in children’s spelling bees. He makes it to the Golden Quill national competition, arousing the ire of both parents and bee organizers, and plays all sorts of nasty tricks on his moppet competitors to sabotage their bee performances.
Accompanying the wretched man-child in his quest to cruelly humiliate children is Jenny (Kathryn Hahn), a reporter covering his story and trying desperately to be granted an interview. Any attempt to probe Guy to discover his motivations instead leads to casual sexual encounters where she commands Guy not to look at her during the act.
Guy also forms an unlikely bond with the chipper prodigy Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), a fellow bee participant who reaches out to Guy in an attempt to at least make one friend, regardless of the fact that Guy is an absolute dickwad. Guy provides Chaitanya a release from the stern routine of studying and practice, and shows him there’s more to life than books and vocabulary words.
Bateman deserves credit for successfully expanding his range. As Guy, he is able to give audiences a glimpse into his sinister side, and if he were given better, more serious subject matter, Bateman could play a full-on psychopath. It is also his best role to date. The most curious aspect of Bad Words is to see what Bateman does his first time behind the camera. The film’s visual palette combines warm and cold to create an aesthetic well-suited for a dark comedy, and the camera moves with vibrant, kinetic motion. Bateman truly has a unique vision he’s feeling out.
What stifles the film is the uneven script by newcomer Andrew Dodge. Guy’s relationships with Jenny and Chaitanya are never fully realized or played for the most comedic effect. His motivations, when they are revealed, don’t make the most sense considering Guy’s surly personality. Though the film does have some pretty hefty laughs here and there, the film confuses raunch for genuine comedy (but isn’t totally a wasted effort). At best, Bad Words is a springboard for Bateman to evolve as a filmmaker, and fans of the low-brow will appreciate the film’s proud coarseness.