The idea is perfect for a fish-out-of-water comedy: a foul-mouthed, disrespectful, 40-year-old jerk finds a loophole to compete against children in a National Spelling Bee. However, what makes “Bad Words” work is the fact that Jason Bateman and writer Andrew Dodge didn’t just take the easy path, they shot for a film with real heart. They achieved that goal, maybe at the sacrifice of not making the movie as funny as it could be, but the movie works better as a whole because of it.
Bateman made his directorial debut with “Bad Words,” and the film shows a lot of promise for him behind the camera. There’s nothing about it that makes him the next hot director to watch, but he has a real handle on the material and crafted the film in a satisfying way. More interesting was Bateman’s performance. This is one of his more complex roles and he nails it. He plays the asshole to very amusing effect, but also conveys the characters mixed emotions and self-awareness extremely well.
It’s that same mixed emotion and self-awareness that really makes the movie what it is. Bateman’s Guy Triply isn’t just some jerk looking for an easy way to make money. In fact, Kathryn Hahn’s reporter asks him on numerous occasions why he is really doing it and he playfully avoids the topic. The audience has as much clue as Hahn’s character as to Guy’s true motivation for a majority of the film.
When the reveal finally does come, it isn’t some cheap, theological answer, it is primal and totally in line with what we’ve seen from the character. The steps we’ve seen were careful calculations by Guy. He knows what he is doing and knows how ridiculous it is, but he plows forward into the abyss anyway.
When you come back to the basic premise though, that is where the film has its weaknesses. It’s just not as funny as you would hope. There are laughs, and the odd couple friendship of Bateman’s Guy and his fellow Spelling Bee competitor played by Rohan Chand is ripe with comedic moments. They made a choice however, they could have gone all out with the jokes and probably lost some of the heart, but rather they chose story over cheap gags. I’m not complaining over their choice, but in all honesty I was expecting a few more gut busting laughs.
Kathryn Hahn, Allison Janney and Philip Baker Hall make up the primary supporting cast and they are all strong. Hahn is particularly memorable as the reporter writing Bateman’s story and his kind of reality check. She really just burst onto the scene in the last couple years, but she is making a name for herself quickly.
For an R-rated comedy, “Bad Words” covers all the bases, profanity, some nudity, and general shenanigans. It’s not looking to push the envelope in those regards – there’s no ‘oh my God’ moment that other R-rated comedies go for. Rather, it went back to the basics and focused on story and characters. It leaves the comedy to be a little desired, but it is a solid film overall.