Jason Bateman has had an interesting career. Starting off in the late 80’s as a prolific young actor, he later made a comeback in the early 2000’s with the help of the much beloved TV show, Arrested Development. Bad Words marks as his feature length directorial debut, working with a screenplay that appeared on the 2011 Black List by Andrew Dodge.
The film follows Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman), a forty-year-old middle school dropout who is on a mission to win the spelling bee by exploiting a loophole. He goes on this journey with a female reporter, and his sponsor, Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), and he also makes an unexpected friendship with a fellow contestant, Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand).
For a directing debut, Jason Bateman has some tricky material to deal with. The very premise and the character of Guy calls for an extremely rude and foul person that the audience will need to ultimately connect with and root for. This is a tough task to work with. He would need to balance the crudeness of the character with enough likability to keep us wanting him to keep doing what he’s doing, but at the same time, not sacrificing any humor, which is meant to be edgy and indecent, and not taking that comedy too far, so we don’t end up hating the character. Fortunately, Jason Bateman’s tight direction and the sharp script by Andrew Dodge manage to balance all the necessary elements with confidence and gusto.
Jason Bateman definitely gives one of his best performances. He has always been great in comedy and he effortlessly gives his most unhinged performance so far, but at the same time, he adds enough charm to keep us invested in his story. The other actors do a great job as well. Rohan Chand, who has to play a kid that’s practically too cute for his own good, which could have easily come off as unbearable, but he does a good job holding his own with Jason Bateman, and their back and forth is very well done, providing for many of the funnier moments in the film. The supporting cast, including, but not limited to, Kathryn Kahn, Steve Witting and Ben Falcone do a good job as well, even if their roles are a bit limited. The exception to that is Philip Baker Hall, who plays a character that comes to importance later in the film, so I won’t spoil how he fits into the story.
The film does not have much going against it. I could say that if offensive humor bothers you then avoid this film, it’s not for you. There is a lot of racial, sexual and just downright nasty jokes thrown shamelessly at the viewer, although it’s not an issue for me, it is something that certain people should be aware of before going into it (although considering that the film is called Bad Words, I think the filmmakers were clearly giving a hint towards what you should expect). The overall story, though solid enough, could come off as a bit predictable once things get going. It does at times feel a bit been there done that and I’ve seen a number of people make comparisons to Bad Santa, and those comparisons are valid. Another thing regarding the story is that even though they provide a perfectly reasonable explanation as to why Guy is able to take part in the spelling bee, there are several moments in the film that, realistically speaking, he should not have gotten away with, but I guess you have to suspend your disbelief for those parts, which I had no problem with, plus those moments were some of the funnier scenes in the film. But I digress.
Bad Words is a gleefully vulgar and consistently funny dark comedy. Jason Bateman’s impressive direction keeps the film going at a quick pace, adding some occasional flair to the visual and his acting shows a great deal of care and attention not just for the character, but for the project as a whole. Andrew Dodge’s script uses its gutsy guffaws to great effect, while also keeping a tight, character driven narrative with a surprising amount of heart, which comes to light towards the end. However, it is at the end of the day, the comedy that everyone goes for and the film delivers on the comedy in spades.
Side Note: Though this makes his first film as a director, Jason Bateman is not a stranger to the position. He has been directing practically since the beginning of his acting career, directing episodes of Valerie, Family Matters, Brother’s Keeper, Two of a Kind, For Your Love, Do Not Disturb, and even an episode of Arrested Development. His next directorial effort will be the film, The Family Fang, which is based on a best-selling book by Kevin Wilson. Jason Bateman will star along with Nicole Kidman, and if his effort with Bad Words is any indication towards his talent as a director, then consider me excited to see what he does with The Family Fang.