Bad Words (United States, 2014)

March 20, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Bad Words Poster

There's no debating that Bad Words contains some big, politically incorrect laughs. The movie isn't awash in them but there are enough to keep the chuckles coming. The film's problem is that, despite obvious aspirations to be more than just a profane joke factory, it never fulfills its dramatic ambitions. The screenplay, credited to Andrew Dodge, wants to tell the story of a damaged individual and how, through his actions and interactions, he heals the festering wound in his soul, but too much of the material necessary to this tale never makes it to the screen. So, although Bad Words can be rightfully described as "funny," it feels more like half a movie than a whole experience.

The premise is sufficiently off-kilter to draw in the viewer. 40-year old Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman), a misanthrope of the highest caliber, has discovered a loophole in the rules that govern a national spelling bee. Propped up by the sponsorship of reporter Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), he elects to enter and compete against contestants a quarter of his age. Guy has a distinct advantage: he possesses a photographic memory and has four decades of "word experience" to draw upon. The spelling bee's acting director, Dr. Deagan (Allison Janney), and chairman, Dr. Bowman (Philip Baker Hall), do what they can to dissuade Guy to withdraw, but he refuses. Meanwhile, he starts up an unlikely friendship with a 10-year old fellow competitor, Chaitanya Chopra (Rohand Chand), whose seeming openness camouflages an underhanded plot.

This is Jason Bateman's directorial debut and he has learned a thing or two from his past collaborations about how to deliver a punch-line. Despite its flaws, Bad Words contains some laugh-aloud moments. The best of these occurs when the movie depicts the TV coverage of the spelling bee's final day. There's also a profanity-laden tirade delivered by Guy toward a woman who accosts him while he's eating dinner with Chaitanya.

The movie is littered with half-developed subplots. It's as if Bad Words was originally intended to be much longer but was trimmed (either before filming or during the editing process) in order to fit it into a tidy 90-minute package. We get the skeleton but there's not much flesh on the bones. The friendship between Chaitanya and Guy relies heavily on clich├ęs and never attains the level of genuineness necessary for the finale to achieve the desired traction. The quasi-romance between Guy and Jenny is assembled primarily out of inferences. Two other characters - those played by Allison Janney and Philip Baker Hall - are so thinly written that they serve as little more than plot devices.

The most fascinating aspect of Bad Words may be the degree to which Bateman generates viewer sympathy for a thoroughly despicable character. We're in Bad Santa territory here. In another movie with a different viewpoint, Guy would be the clear villain - a predatory monster who corrupts and abuses children. However, in part because of Bateman's inherent likability and in part because of the streak of dark humor running through the project, it's not difficult to become invested in Guy despite his innate perversity.

Sardonic, profane comedies have become popular in recent years and Bad Words represents a mediocre example. Those in search of a few good laughs will find them but the film's limitations prevent it from offering something more satisfying or memorable.


Bad Words (United States, 2014)

Director: Jason Bateman
Cast: Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Rohand Chand, Philip Baker Hall, Allison Janney
Screenplay: Andrew Dodge
Cinematography: Ken Seng
Music: Rolfe Kent
U.S. Distributor: Focus Features
Run Time: 1:28
U.S. Release Date: 2014-03-21
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1