By R. David
Viewed March 29, 2014
“Bad Words” is the equivalent of cinematic comfort food. While guilty pleasures tend to be films more of the “so bad it’s good” variety – movies that have a winking or knowing idea of their own limitations – films of the comfort food variety are generally familiar, safe and predictable efforts, lodged firmly in their genre wheelhouses. They aren’t lazy, per se. Many of these films have a sincere attitude towards their story and characters, and the best ones attempt to color in the margins of their tried and true formula with a few colorful ideas. Rather than delighting in their limitations or exploiting them for laughs like their guilty pleasure counterparts, the best of these comfort food films try to bring some distinct flavor and originality to the table.
As a fairly predictable genre exercise with its own distinctive energy and tone, “Bad Words” is a success. Not a total black comedy, but certainly darker than the usual mainstream Hollywood comedy, “Bad Words” doesn’t break any molds or buck genre conventions, but it delights in going through the usual motions with an attitude that’s all its own (similar to other films in this recent, semi-cottage industry of comedies with “Bad” in their title – “Bad Santa”, “Bad Teacher”, etc.). As a result, the audience always feels a bit off kilter; unsure of how the story will play out, even if the film is technically marching headlong from beat to formulaic beat.
“Bad Words’” ace in the hole is Jason Bateman, making his feature film directorial debut here, as well as staring as 40-year-old Guy Trilby, a hapless and unapologetically misanthropic warranty proof-reader who makes it his life mission to compete against pre-teens in national spelling bees. You see, Guy never graduated 8th grade, which allows him to exploit a loophole in the contest rules, making his entrance in the competitions fair and legal, much to the disgust (and – in many cases – the outright violent hatred) of the juvenile contestants’ parents. It doesn’t help that Guy is nothing short of a savant in his command of the English language, easily and humiliatingly obliterating his young competition and never missing an opportunity to add insult to injury by hurtfully mocking each kid he defeats. The film is purposely cagey about Guy’s motives for all this. Does he do it for the prize money? Does he do it to prove to himself and others that he is indeed a smart guy despite never making it past 8th grade? Or is he simply a damaged individual who delights in destroying the hopes and dreams of others?
Bateman’s directorial style – an unpolished, tossed-off approach – isn’t much to look at, but it does give the film a dank, hostile edge in keeping with its attitude. Andrew Dodge’s screenplay is light on originality and surprises where plotting and storytelling are concerned, but that feels almost intentional as his true intent here seems to be discovering how unconventionally he can be in play with genre conventions. His script also feels tailor made for Bateman and more concerned with giving the star vehicle in which to play to his strengths. The venerable, likable sitcom star has always had subversive sarcastic streak and “Bad Words” is a perfect thematic showcase for his talents, allowing him to lob biting observations, insults and one-liners like Molotov cocktails. The film is at its best when it just lets Batman off his chain to do what he does best. Unfortunately, a story must intervene. Dodge does what he can to keep the more predictable aspects of the genre interesting, though. The always winning Kathryn Hahn plays a reporter following Guy’s story as well as his perspective love interest, and young Rohan Chand is charged with playing Batman’s foil – a polite, naïve, wide-eyed 10-year-old spelling wiz – no easy task for any actor, never mind one as young and inexperienced as Chand, but he is a truly delightful performer and he and Batman have an easy and infectious on-screen chemistry. Again, “Bad Words” doesn’t exactly take chances where either of these supporting characters’ subplots are concerned; but true to the film as a whole, it’s the little nontraditional tweaks Douglas and Bateman add to the proceedings that keep the audience entertained despite trolling familiar ground.
“Bad Words” is a bit to slight and traditional to get really excited about. But it has a pleasingly relaxed and matter-of-fact style and attitude that makes it hard to resist. It also offers a bevy of outrageous laughs, and terrific performances across the board, particularly for the three aforementioned principal players. It’s a solid foundation for Batman to build what will hopefully be an interesting and varied filmmaking career upon.
3 Stars (Out of 4)