Jason Bateman's directorial debut proves to be brisk, brash and consistently funny.
I kept trying to put my finger on it the whole time I was sitting in the theater. Jason Bateman, whom most will know from his work on Arrested Development as Michael Bluth, tends to be considered a "nice-guy" actor. He has branched out, of course, into other roles that have gone against his usual stints (Paul comes to mind where he played an FBI agent quite well) and here I finally got it. Bateman is channeling Bill Murray extensively for Bad Words. He is simultaneously a horrible person yet still likable through it all. He doesn't lose any sleep over the vile things he does yet there is still some semblance of humanity in there that we can't help but connect with. Murray is possessed of such mastery and Jason shows he's more than capable of the same.
Guy Trillby (Jason Bateman) has entered into a regional spelling bee at the tender age of 40. Why? We aren't really given the reason why. Mostly he just appears to be a somewhat racist and obnoxious fellow who also happens to be hyper-articulate and quite clever. He exploits a loophole in national spelling bee policy to get himself into the competition much to the anger of stressed out parents and potential contestants. Jenny (Kathyn Hahn) provides his sponsorship for the tournament and also a foil for finding out just why he's on such a callous crusade.
One flick that immediately comes to mind while viewing this one is Bad Santa. It offered up the same acerbic jerkoff character that finds a connection in an unlikely source as well. Ours comes in the form of ten year old Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand). Their first encounter on the plane ride to LA for the national spelling bee championships was something magical. This precocious kid staring over the seat at an uncaring Bateman who tells him to spin around and shut his "curry-hole". The boy persist though and the two strike up quite a friendship that leads to an incomprehensible night of frivolity involving booze, shoplifting, lobsters and a prostitute. It is something you expect in such a film and, though, it was a bit more calculated it was still executed with such genuine aplomb by Bateman and Chand that you can't help but laugh along.
It is going to be a shock if young Rohan doesn't have a lot more work in the future. Bateman's performance in front of the camera, as great as it was, would have suffered if not for the bright-eyed innocence of young Chaitanya. There is, of course, the usual psychoanalysis and sentimentality that also comes around with these sorts of films. Once we learn the reason for Guy's poisonous journey it feels a little flat but that doesn't matter so much.
Bateman's direction is assured but not flashy. It doesn't need to be. This is a movie about a jerk in a spelling bee after all. The nice attention to the details of the institution and the people it is lampooning (the spelling bee and those ridiculous parents who drive their kids towards orthographic perfection) provide a rather nice and textured backdrop for all the blistering one-liners to fly around.
It would be tempting to say that Bateman thrust himself into the starring role to break away from the usual casting he gets. Other actors could have done a fine job I suppose but I think Bateman managed to give us a perfect mixture of a dark heart and just enough feeling to make you give a damn. That is the ultimate triumph of the film though it certainly helps that Andy Dodge's scripting is so on-point. The savage nature of the many put-downs and comebacks that Guy dispenses to the unbelieving officials and the holier-than-thou parents that populate the film (Rachel Harris plays a small but tremendously hilarious role as one of those awful Moms).
The Final Word: Bad Words is trashy, scabrous and one hell of a time. Funny from start to finish and well worth the price of admission to see Bateman in front of and behind the camera.