BAD WORDS (Dir. Jason Bateman, 2013)
Because of its ripe premise about a foul-mouthed 40-year-old who uses a loophole to enter a national spelling bee for elementary school students, I was expecting big laughs from Jason Bateman’s directorial debut.
Instead I had to make do with a fair amount of mildly amusing moments provided by the jerkish behavior of Bateman’s Guy Trilby, a guy who delights in humiliating the children contestants he towers over onstage, throwing them off their game so he can clean up with his mad spelling skills.
Bateman travels with his sponsor, Kathryn Hahn as a reporter for an online newspaper, to Los Angeles to complete in the National Quill Spelling Bee, in spite of the protests of Alison Janey as the tournament’s snobby director and all the competing kids’ parents.
Hated so much that they place him in the hotel’s storage closet for the duration of the event, Bateman befriends the cute 10-year old Chaitanya (Rohan Chand of Homeland and LONE SURVIVOR), because these BAD movies (BAD SANTA, BAD GRANDPA, BAD NEWS BEARS) usually have their crusty lead characters thrown together with young ones lacking parental guidance.
Chand is left unsupervised by his parents who are staying in a nicer hotel, so our profane protagonist takes him on a wild night ride by way of booze, soliciting a prostitute (Kimleigh Smith, who may have a few of the best lines), and pulling a public restroom prank involving a stolen lobster.
Of course, the most important set pieces are the nationally televised spelling bee segments hosted by a slick announcer played by Ben Falcone (BRIDESMAIDS, ENOUGH SAID) and Philip Baker Hall as Golden Quill’s respected founder/administrator, another participant who is highly disgusted by Bateman. These scenes actually play with a tinge of suspense, even though we know Bateman is too smart to lose (he even gets the word “Floccinaucinihilipilification” right!).
We get the bare bones of a back story about Bateman (don’t worry – no Spoilers!) late in the game, but it doesn’t fully flesh out the character in a satisfying way making the conclusion come off as way too tidy.
Working from a script by first-time screenwriter Andrew Dodge, first-time filmmaker Bateman shows strengths in story structure and timing, though some scenes felt like they were edited with too many close-ups. Like Harold Ramis told Stephen Tobolowsky on the set of GROUNDHOG DAY, “Comedy lives in the two-shot.”
It also feels like the film is only pretending to be mean-spirited and offensive, like that friend we’ve all had that says rude or ostensibly outrageous things just to get attention, but you know they’re really a softie deep down and it’s all a show.
Still, Bateman has crafted a likable film about an unlikable guy that I chuckled throughout at, and he’s surrounded the crude character with a charismatic cast aping a posse of pissed off people - Rachel Harris in particular, as an angry mother, steals her scenes.
Few are likely to laugh their asses off at BAD WORDS or claim that it’s a modern comedy classic, but those who don't mind (or are fans of) R-rated language looking for a mildly amusing matinee should look no further.