Film Review: Bad Words

by Chad Liffmann on March 14, 2014

Charming, crude, and rudimentary.  R-U-D-I-M-E-N-T-A-R-Y.

Jason Bateman acts like a child.  A naughty naughty child.

Jason Bateman acts like a child. A naughty naughty child.

(Click here to see my video interview with Jason Bateman)

There is something delightfully sadistic about taking an innocent and formal pastime such as the national spelling bee and flipping it on its head through vulgarity and unabashed crudeness.  Bad Words, which has already drawn comparisons to 2003’s Bad Santa, manages to find that coveted happy zone in which the audience can cheer on an antihero, even when the antihero engages in some truly despicable acts.  Star Jason Bateman, who also makes his film directorial debut with Bad Words, knew that a relatable lead character with a story to tell (and legit motive) would be just as important to the success of the film as the level of crudeness.  Hats off to Mr. Bateman for pulling it off, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else who could.

Jason Bateman (Arrested Development, Horrible Bosses) plays Guy Trilby, a forty year-old middle school dropout who enters into a children’s spelling bee competition on an unapologetic mission to win it all — children’s academic dreams be damned!  By his side is scrappy reporter/sponsor, Jenny Widgeon, played by Kathryn Hahn (Step Brothers, Revolutionary Road), who is fascinated by Guy’s secret vendetta but has trouble getting him to open up about it.  Once into the finals of the competition, Guy meets fellow competitor Chaitanya Chopra, Rohan Chand (Homeland), a precocious Indian kid who relentlessly tries to become buddy-buddy with Guy, despite the latter’s incredibly rude demeanor.  Guy and Chaitanya manage to find some relatable ground with each other, and despite the storyline being quite predictable, it’s nonetheless full of entertaining moments as the spelling competition spirals out of control due to Guy’s presence, to which the other competitors’ parents are furious at and the competitions administrators constantly fail to quell.

Whether or not you enjoy Bad Words depends entirely on how you view the sum of its parts, as well as your willingness to enjoy a little black humor.  The film would not be good if Bateman wasn’t able to portray a lovable antihero.  Nor would the film work without a strong child actor like Chand, who steals the show through much of the film’s middle portion.  Nor would the film work without the mad chemistry between Bateman and Hahn (real life friends), who together create some of the most hilariously awkward sex scenes I’ve seen in some time.  And finally, the film would not have worked without the sharp script by Andrew Dodge and steady direction by Bateman.

Bad Asses.

Bad Asses.

As Bateman stated in a short interview with Spinning Platters, he liked this story because it wasn’t “too big.”  There aren’t any explosions or CGI.  He was able to direct Bad Words with a straightforward approach that focused on the characters, and sure, with some added style for good measure.  And, how about that script!  My oh my what a barrage of hilariously uncomfortable moments.  Andrew Dodge took a few chances with the script to Bad Words because the terrible things that Guy says and does to these poor kids keeps escalating over the course of the 90 minute running time.  If you can’t find an ounce of humor in a few racist and sexual jokes, this is not the movie for you.  If you can, however, you’ll still squirm and groan, but you’ll definitely finish laughing.  Take note of the aforementioned time, by the way — a comedy with a traditional comedy running time, thank heavens!

These days, I occasionally get the sense that audiences (including myself) have come to expect something completely unique every time they go see a movie.  This isn’t a bad thing, but this viewpoint can overlook the beauty of carefully crafted pieces of adult entertainment (of the non-porn kind), like Bad Words.  Just like 2012’s Ted, Bad Words trades in the opportunity to reach unheard of levels of crudeness in favor of a well-rounded (yet arguably unoriginal) story.  In doing so, however, Bad Words doesn’t risk giving off the impression that it has cheated us.  It takes great risks in its jokes, but not its structure.  And if not for that reason alone, it’s perfectly enjoyable.  We can tell that the filmmakers and cast cared about the story arc.  They wanted to deliver something that adults could enjoy, while also providing some of that special escapist release that adults often go to the movies for.  When discussing if Bad Words would connect with audiences, Bateman quipped, “depending on the hate letters I get.”  Bad Words didn’t need a big budget to attempt a potentially polarizing objective, just a big set of balls.

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Bad Words opens in theaters March 14th, 2014.

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