The transformation of Jason Bateman from forgotten actor to Arrested Development star to an R-rated comedy veteran has been an interesting one. He seems more comfortable in vulgar laughers than anywhere else, tweaking his Michael Bluth persona with a dash of nasty language and a sharper edge. He's so comfortable in the genre that he's made his directorial debut the naughty, R-rated comedy Bad Words. Bateman is right in his foul-mouthed element unleashing a string of expletives and off-color insults, and as long as he stays there the film is an absolute riot. It's when the needs of a quality story intrude that Bad Words becomes more of a mushy lullaby.
Bateman comes with an arsenal of racial and ethnic slurs as Guy Trilby, a misanthropic douche bag who worms his way into elementary school spelling bees through a loophole. His reasons are a mystery, but what's obvious is that he has a disdain for the Golden Quill national spelling bee, and lethal venom towards his school-aged opponents. He lacerates them with every abusive quip he can muster up, and while some of the damage he causes is funny, and a little daring since it's aimed at kids, a lot of it misses the mark. There comes a point early on when Guy's comments lose their shock value, and it's roughly around that time when screenwriter Andrew Dodge (the screenplay ended up on the Black List somehow) unsuccessfully attempts to give the film a lighter tone.
Clearly inspired by Bad Santa, what Bad Words desperately lacks is a character we can either sympathize with or love to hate, and Guy Trilby is not that....guy. What made Billy Bob Thornton so great in Bad Santa was that his character was an a-hole, but it was mostly turned inward. He hated himself more than anybody else and it manifested in the many ways he screwed up good things. Guy is just a jerk, and whatever the reasons for his vengeful quest they don't excuse the terrible way he treats people who have absolutely nothing to do with his anger. Often he humiliates them (remember, these are children) publicly for no apparent reason, which makes no sense considering he's established to be some sort of genius. The typically-great Kathryn Hahn plays a rather pathetic journalist following him around the country documenting his story, while also throwing herself at him every chance she gets. She sleeps with him repeatedly despite Guy treating her like dirt the entire time.
Even worse is the attempt to soften Guy by giving him a precocious little sidekick in 10-year-old Chaitanya (the excellent Rohan Chand). A rival in the Golden Quill, Chaitanya looks up to Guy as a friend, warming his heart while enduring some ugly ethnic slurs. With little rhyme or reason, Guy is soon his best buddy in the world and taking him out for montage-heavy nights on the town. There's a real chemistry between Bateman and Chand that is infectious and enjoyable despite it not really making much story sense. But then not much about the plot is all that logical. Guy's motivation doesn't jibe with his actions and feels like a desperate, last ditch attempt to salvage a purely despicable character.
For his first time directing, Bateman does a solid job with a film that doesn't ask for much visually. What he also shows is a deft hand for the dramatic scenes as much as the ones played for laughs, if only had a more even script to work with. The whole spelling bee theme is perfect for a satirical skewering, but sadly Bad Words isn't a film we can crown champion.
For more on Bad Words, be sure to check out my interview with Jason Bateman.