I really wanted to like Bad Words a lot more than I did. It had plenty of moments that were undoubtedly funny and well-executed, but at times, Jason Bateman’s feature directorial debut also felt forced. All the most vulgar moments are shown in the red band trailer, and the rest veers dangerously close to predictably heartfelt. In other words, it is a film that tries so hard to be “bad,” but is actually quite safe, not actually giving us anything nearly as edgy or new as it claims to; but, it still gives us something entertaining nonetheless.
First, let me say that Jason Bateman’s direction is not one of the problems I had with the film. In fact, I thought one of the strongest aspects of the film was its unique and artful stylization which actually did match quite well with its dark comedy aims. The story of Guy Trilby—a 40 year old curmudgeon who finds a loophole that allows him to compete in a national spelling bee meant for children and played by Bateman himself— begins with an ironic and irreverent tone. The use of classical music and rack focus between kids and parents all preparing for the competition in the opening sequence really sets up the film as the dark comedy it is being marketed as. I also loved the opening credits, played over a slow motion chase between Trilby, running out of the school with the trophy, and all of the parents (whose kids were robbed of said trophy) angrily trailing behind him. The whole thing is ridiculous, and that makes it amusing.
Throughout the film, I really applauded these and others of Bateman’s directing choices: the whole thing is shot in this kind of falsely nostalgic yellow hue, and his decision to switch from that to a televised view of the spelling bee at times was creative and really worked to heighten the stakes of whatever horrible, cruel gag he has played on the child ahead of him who is then forced to deal with that humiliation while spelling for national television.
All that being said, I had my share of issues with the film, and I love a good dark comedy as much as the next person. I felt like the film ran into the common issue of not being able to negotiate two very opposite pulls. The first, of course, would be its attempted edginess and shock value. I was, at least momentarily, gleefully appalled and guiltily entertained by some of Trilby’s stunts but at the same time I had very little reason to buy into them for too long. All the clues we are given along the way about why Trilby is doing all this in the first place, even those stated sarcastically and bitterly by Trilby himself, make it really hard to hate him: which is a good thing, considering without any justification, we probably would have hated Trilby too much to even care about this movie. Yet, somehow, the things we’re meant to hate him for and the things we’re meant to forgive or sympathize with him for all felt too artificial and trite. His vulgarity and grumpy, self-centered demeanor play out like a childhood tantrum devoid of any true conviction, but the reason for his stunted development and cry for attention seems too sentimental to explain his equally unbelievable behavior.
Maybe I just have a hard time seeing Jason Bateman as an all-out bad guy, which Guy Trilby isn’t really anyway; Bateman’s performance mostly achieves the kind of balance the film at large sort of lacks. But by the time the film gets to that point of revealing his reasons for acting the way he does and for competing in the spelling bee, you’ve kind of already predicted that the film was going there. However, as sentimental is it is, the revelation still provides an effective-enough emotional drive to a film that might otherwise be totally crude. Another amusing but predictable element would be the young Indian boy he meets and unwittingly befriends, named Chaitanya Chopra and played with, again, almost too much heart and charm by the adorable Rohan Chand. He is a necessary part of an unnecessary formula that I kept hoping the film would avoid or at least fully embrace. And it halfheartedly tries to avoid it, which I feel like hurt the film more than if it had fully embraced it; Guy flips off Chaitanya numerous times including at the ill-fittingly heartfelt climax, making the gesture into a kind of secret friendship handshake. But ultimately, Guy is changed by meeting this boy: even his last middle finger salute to the child is paired with a smile. Yet, Guy is only changed as much as is reasonable; his end point may be predictable but it wasn’t wholly implausible either.
I did love that the film sometimes at least acknowledges the formula it tries so hard to transcend; Guy’s reporter sponsor and friend-with-benefits, Jenny (played by the always hilarious Kathryn Hahn) even asks him if he’s found his “Cindy Lou Who,” making the obvious Grinch reference that we’ve all been silently making up until this point; that self-referential moment is refreshing and hilarious. The film mixes the potentially-typical plot up a little also by pitting Chaitanya and Guy against each other and by dragging out their final spelling bee match-up. It is enough to make us laugh but it isn’t enough to revolutionize the sort of “bitter man-child meets innocent actual-child” formula which it wants so badly to subvert and be cooler than: the film stumbles and slips clumsily back into that formula frequently and with a sense of embarrassment at having done so, resulting in redundancy as it tries to pick itself back up again by throwing in a few more offensive lines of dialogue as if to prove Guy’s moral immovability that eventually does move.
I think the film would have succeeded even more if it had simply chosen what it really wants to be: the offensive nature of the film felt more like a flimsy façade for Guy Trilby’s sad childhood story and eventual redemption, and perhaps for the film’s overall status as an edgy dark comedy filled with cursing around kids. But without carefully balancing these things, the power is really taken out of the film; the two pulls eventually just pull at each other and deflate the whole thing, so nothing is really satisfied for the audience fully. Films with identity crises are always a shame to me, because sometimes it’s just a matter of cohesion and coherence. But, the film is, by no means, a bad movie or even a boring one. It just felt a little tortured and, to be honest, a little bit forgettable almost, lost among and within a genre of works that have no such qualms admitting what they truly are. Bad Words though is a film that is, like its own man-child Guy Trilby, struggling with what it truly wants to be and trying too hard to be too many things at once.
Director: Jason Bateman
Starring: Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Rohan Chand, Philip Baker Hall, Allison Janney, Ben Falcone
Rating: 3 out of 5 expletives
Sara majors in Film Studies and Media & Communication at Muhlenberg College. Her favorite genre is horror but she loves learning, writing and talking about all kinds of movies and all forms of entertainment. She has interned with Film Forum and Tribeca Film, both in her native NYC where she hopes to find work in criticism, marketing, distribution, or festival programming post-grad. Her blog and associated Twitter were created with the intention of being more involved and aware of happenings in the film and television industries, as well as to practice writing about pop culture in an academic but friendly and funny way.