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'Bad Words': Jason Bateman's splendiferous directorial debut

Bad Words

Rating:
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Bateman did a bad bad thing. And he did it very very well.

Jason Bateman remains unmoved by Rohan Chand's considerable charm
Jason Bateman remains unmoved by Rohan Chand's considerable charm
Focus Features

With "Bad Words", Jason Bateman brings his wry straight man with a wicked sense of humor behind the camera, turns him into Jack Nicholson playing Ebenezer Scrooge, and puts him back in front.

Here we meet Guy Trilby, a fellow with a goal, and by golly, anyone who gets in his way will find themselves squelched and humiliated. This guy is indefatigable, apparently deeply misguided (even maladjusted), and intractable.

So what his quest? To obliterate Harry Potter? To reclaim the One Ring? To secure the codes to Zion?

No, Guy Trilby’s out to win that elusive prize awarded only to those of utmost dedication, a steel-trap memory, and nerves of steel. He’s out to win the venerable Golden Quill national spelling bee, this year being broadcast live for the first time on PBS. (Everyone, together: “Oooohhhhh….”).

Thing is, Guy’s forty years old.

Masterfully exploiting a loophole in order to take that Quill for some reason he’s unwilling to divulge, Guy has incensed the adults involved to the loss of all reason. As one might imagine, his competitors’ parents and the event organizers will chase him round the Moons of Nibia and round the Antares Maelstrom and round Perdition's flames before they give it up. It’s a glorious debate with hostilities lobbed from every side as the battle rages, and Guy employs a scorched earth policy even unto the young contestants as he returns fire.

Hostilities from every side, that is, except that of a cherubic youngster named Chaitanya, a bullied ten-year-old “word geek” toting a voluminous reference binder named Todd, and who insists on befriending Guy despite Guy’s unerringly snide and personally offensive rebuffs. Chaitanya sees only the best in Guy (hey, he’s ten), and winds his way into Guy’s heart like a pup who won’t stop following. Until Todd gets involved, that is…

"Bad Words" is enough of a ribald romp in its own right to warrant spending the time and jingle for a movie night. But what sets it apart are two elements from which I hope to see much, much more: Bateman’s direction and the performance of young Rohan Chand.

I discussed back with "Man of Steel" how a director’s eye can make or break a film, infusing nuance and character even into a flat script (which "Bad Words" by all means is not). As with Snyder and Jackson, Bateman’s angles bring a freshness, humor, and emotional intimacy in elegant juxtaposition to the open warfare present in very nearly every scene. Watching Guy wear everyone else down the way Chaitanya wears Guy down keeps us laughing throughout, and Bateman’s direction keeps our hearts fully engaged with all the characters, even the ones we love to hate (which, no spoiler, often includes Guy).

Funny and fresh as it is, however, "Bad Words" could never have become itself without Rohan Chand. This kid is so guileless, so expressive, and so, well… precious that one just wants to scoop him up and take him home, and when some older kids shoved him down I actually felt protective anger.

It’s not just his comedic sweetness that captures, either; Chand performed with equal impact of dramatic intensity in the recent "Lone Survivor", portraying the son of the Afghan villager without both whose help Marcus Luttrell would not be with us today. Fans of Showtime's "Homeland" will remember him also as Issa Nazir.

Chand’s as gifted as was Tina Majorino at that age (who still is, of course), and I look forward to his career with great anticipation. (Fond of him as I am, however, it doesn’t mean I’m going to subject myself to his big break, "Jack and Jill"; I’ll just stipulate that he was a marvelous munchkin there as well and move on.)

Important note for parents: though the movie features a youngster and a young people’s event, "Bad Words" is not a movie for the young. NOT. Get it? Check it out yourself first, and if you feel so inclined to share it with your minor, then of course that’s your prerogative. Observe the careful editing and you’ll notice that Chand was nowhere near any of the adult-oriented portions of the film, of which there are several (including one that actually involved Chaitanya – in actual life, Guy would be tossed into the clink for contributing to the delinquency of a minor).

"Bad Words" is filled with good laughs, stands on a decent and original story (itself a strong debut by writer Andrew Dodge), and promises bright futures for all three gentlemen.

Splendiferous. S-P-L-E-N-D-I-F-E-R-OU-S. Splendiferous!

Story: A 40-year-old man exploits a loophole and enters the Golden Quill spelling bee, to the untenable chagrin of contestant parents and event officials alike.

Genre: Comedy

Starring: Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Rohan Chand, Philip Baker Hall, Allison Janney

Directed by: Jason Bateman

MPAA: R

Official sites: Official Site | Official Facebook

Running time: 88 minutes

Houston release date: March 21, 2014

Tickets: Check Fandango, IMDb, or your local listings

Screened Mar 3rd 2014 at the Studio Movie Grill City Centre theater in Houston TX