March 14, 2014

SHOWBUZZDAILY Film Review: “Bad Words”


BAD WORDS:  Watch It At Home – Hilarious, For a While

BAD WORDS eventually has to spell out its plot, and that’s when, like many an initially enthusiastic competitor, it fades, becoming increasingly soft and even sentimental.  For a while though, Jason Bateman’s directing debut, from a script by Andrew Dodge, is resolutely, and often hilariously, offensive.

Guy Trilby (Bateman) is a middle-aged loser who’s figured out a loophole in the rules of a national spelling bee:  eligibility is defined in terms of completed education rather than age, and so he technically qualifies as a contestant.  To the horror of the bee’s officials, represented by Bernice Deagan (Allison Janney) the creator of the bee, Dr. Bowman (Philip Baker Hall), and the parents of the young contestants, Guy insists on entering, and he’s not kidding around.  He’s out to destroy all the sweet little kiddies in his path, blasting them not just with his extra decades of knowledge but with filthy invective and all manner of dirty tricks (he embarrasses one girl into thinking she’s having her first period on stage).  His only wary ally is Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), an internet reporter whose site provides the necessary sponsorship for Guy’s campaign, and who against her better judgment frequently falls into bed with him.

As long as the focus of Bad Words is on Guy’s war with the bee system, and its own nasty tactics to defeat him (among other things, the hotel “room” he’s given for Finals is a supply closet), the movie is consistently a riot; it may not be admirable to wring laughs from children (and their parents) being insulted, mocked and assailed with profanity, but it works.  Alarm signals start to go off, though, at the first sight of adorable Chaitainya (Rohan Chand), who not only takes all the invective Guy can throw at him, but insists on being his friend.  It’s not hard to figure out the plot machinations that lay behind this, but the problem is that Dodge, and Bateman, want to have Chaitainya both ways, and the attempt to be both clever and heartwarming ends up deadening the comedy.  Things get even more borderline cloying when facts Guy has been hiding about himself come out, and his relationship with Jenny becomes more than mere distaste-sex.

All of these developments make Hollywood sense, because protagonists can never be too unlikable, and “redemption” is one of the most important words in a movie executive’s own vocabulary.  It’s still a disappointment to see such an initially transgressive comedy start drawing within the lines.  Still, there’s a lot to enjoy about Bad Words.  As an actor, Bateman is usually cast as the slightly nebbishy nice guy who’s the victim of some catalyst (Arrested Development, Identity Thief, Extract, etc.), but he had an effectively nasty edge in his bit in Jason Reitman’s Up In the Air, and his relish in unleashing his inner meanie here is infectious.  His work as a director is clean and promising; he doesn’t make the mistake of cluttering scenes with unnecessary comic business, and working with cinematographer Ken Seng (who shot Disconnect, which featured Bateman in its ensemble cast), he avoids the overly harsh lighting and sitcom look that afflict so many studio comedies.

Naturally, Bateman is also effective with the actors.  Hahn has the least well-written role, but in an unaccustomed lead, she commits herself entirely to its contortions, while Janney and Hall are among the pros who turn up in smaller parts.  Bateman was himself a child actor, and he makes the young performers into more than charm machines, especially Chand.

Bad Words is more notable for its potential than its ultimate success, but at its best it’s as funny as anything out there.  It makes you want to see what Bateman and Dodge can do next.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."