Movies like Bad Words tend to fiercely divide critics, with one half accusing them of empty shock tactics and the other half praising their edginess and daring. I fall into the latter camp with this one, though I can certainly understand the former. Not everyone wants to watch Jason Bateman’s misanthropic protagonist laying into small children with a viciousness that would make Terrell Owens blanch. The question becomes why his character would do such a thing, and in its journey towards the answer, Bad Words actually goes to some very interesting places. Hit the jump for my Bad Words Bluray review.
I can’t tell you how the journey ends – as spoilers go, it’s pretty huge – but Bateman (who serves as director here as well as the star) provides enough hints early on to let canny viewers deduce it. You can probably decide for yourself if you want to take the trip simply by knowing where it starts, as a 40-year-old man exploits a little-known technical loophole to enter into the (vaguely fictionalized) National Spelling Bee. Once he’s in, he shows no mercy: playing head games with his pint-sized competition, effortlessly mastering the most daunting spelling challenges, and calmly swatting aside any and all attempts to derail his quest for the championship. In the process, he turns the entire organization upside down and sends its harrumphing elite into apoplectic fits.
And again, the central question becomes why. We’re not the most unified country these days, but if there’s one thing anyone – black, white, straight, gay, left-wing or right-wing – can get behind, it’s a good old-fashioned spelling bee. Who would want to drive a Panzer tank through such a hallowed institution? Is he just a sociopath? Does he truly hate the world that much? Or is there something more to his plans? Those questions drive a curious journalist (Kathryn Hahn) to reluctantly back his plays in return for exposure, and become complicated when he strikes up an unlikely friendship with one of his competitors (Rohan Chand, in a very strong turn). Bateman has the discipline to leave at least some of the mystery be as we march towards the national championship, and he tricks out a few other twists and turns along the way to ensure that the basic formula doesn’t get old.
Whether you want to hang out for all of that depends solely on your sense of humor. Bateman’s comedic shtick is well known, and the script here gives him ample opportunity to display his peerless sense of timing. The appeal lies in seeing how far he can push it and whether, in the end, he’s able to justify his character’s behavior. The children are collateral damage, but he’s hunting bigger game, and seems to believe that traumatizing his fellow competitors is an acceptable price to pay en route. Bad Words neither lionizes nor condemns him for his actions, and Bateman is mature enough to let the audience make up its own mind.
And if you find yourself on its wavelength, it’s very funny. The script uses plenty of shock tactics, to be sure, but it doesn’t rely on shock alone to carry the day. It holds plenty of wit at its core: savage wit, to be sure, but with an underlying purpose that does more than just push buttons. A talented supporting cast helps out, particularly Philip Baker Hall and Allison Janney as his respective nemeses, and Hahn, whose onscreen relationship with Bateman is one of the more interesting of the last few years.
Perhaps most importantly, the films holds up readily for multiple viewings, and if you find yourself enjoying it the first time, the laughs stay with you for the second, third and fourth. That’s a big “if,” however. Numerous reviewers compared Bad Words to Bad Santa, and while it has more purpose (and dare I say more of a message) than that earlier cult classic, the comparison makes a good bellwether to determine if it’s your thing. It was for me – I find Bad Words to be one of the best comedies of the year – but its wavelengths speak to a specialized clientele. A “test-screening” before you pony up the money for a purchase will likely serve you very well.
The disc itself looks good, though the extra features are quite sparse. It includes about 20 minutes of behind-the-scenes docs and deleted scenes (which are really extended scenes in most cases). The big selling point is Bateman’s audio-commentary: a bit dry, but breaking down a lot of his influences and the decision-making process that went into the film. Bateman’s long years of show-biz experience shows in this, his first feature film as director. It’s worth a listen, and fans of the film will find it enhances the purchase considerably.