[This is a re-post of my review from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. Bad Words opens today in limited release.]
As I’ve said in previous reviews, I’m a Jason Bateman fan. I think his critics are wrong when they say he only plays the straight man role. That’s the role he’s best known for, and even then “straight man” is a bit of a misnomer. Instead, Bateman’s adept at playing an outwardly nice guy with a not-very-nice guy deep down. Sometimes the inner guy is moderately deceptive like Arrested Development, sometimes he’s aggressive like Horrible Bosses, and in the case of Bateman’s directorial debut, Bad Words, he’s one of the meanest motherfuckers around. Bateman’s secret weapon is that he still looks and talks like a nice guy, and because he pushes this new character to a level of remarkable despicability, Bad Words is a damn funny flick that plays it safe by the script, but hits hard with the jokes.
Guy Trilby (Bateman) is a professional proofreader and a contender in the Golden Quill Spelling Bee even though he’s forty-years-old and most of his competitors aren’t old enough to have graduated to the eighth grade. Due to a loophole in the rules, Guy didn’t graduate past eighth grade either, which makes him eligible and an absolute embarrassment to the competition. Happily inducing the tears of children and the wrath of their parents as well as Golden Quill director Dr. Bernice Deagan (Allison Janney), Guy is keeping his endgame a secret even from Jenny (Kathryn Hahn), a reporter whose publication is sponsoring Guy’s dubious run at the championship. However, his cold heart begins to warm a bit when he develops an unlikely friendship with fellow competitor Chaitanya (Rohan Chand).
Making children cry in hard-R comedies is nothing new. Robert Downey Jr. even punched a child in Due Date. Bad Words stands out by making children cry as a central tenet of the movie’s comic appeal. These aren’t even bad kids. Guy is a childish person, and readily admits it in the opening voice-over. But if you’re going to be mean to kids, and do so on a consistent basis, then you have to nail the insults. Anything less is just straight bullying, and no one wants to see that. Thankfully, screenwriter Andrew Dodge comes up with jaw-dropping doozies that hit at kids and parents alike. His jokes are sexist, racist, homophobic, and Guy doesn’t hesitate at sabotaging kids by destroying their self-esteem, although almost every victim provokes him. It’s a childish comeback except the comeback has the force of a freight train.
The over-the-top insults and absurdity of the situation are parts of why the mean-spirited comedy works; the other essential part is Bateman. His attacks are so powerful not only because of the words, but because he says them so dismissively. His victims aren’t even worth the effort to get angry. But Bateman is so clean-cut and his delivery so gentle and soothing that every insult hits like a sucker punch. Or to use another violent analogy, Guy is hilarious because he takes down his opponents in one cut rather than slowly, sadistically turning the knife. He doesn’t relish insulting other people. He’s just brilliant at it.
However, the movie is incredibly conscious of not taking its comedy so far as to alienate the audience. Bateman peppers the score with mischievous music, shoots in a dry, detached style (although there are some awkward lens flares) except when Guy is partying with Chaitanya. Chaitanya also has to be Guy’s polar opposite to provide some semblance of sweetness to the movie. His golly-gee manner makes him like a punching bag clown that Guy hits and then springs right back up again still smiling. Chaitanya’s relationship with Guy is the constant reminder that Guy may be an incredible ass-hole, but not a complete monster.
Some will find Guy Trilby completely irredeemable even when his true motive is revealed, and some of his insults, especially the ones directed at Chaitanya, may make some audience members cringe. Most viewers should be aware of their tolerance limit for mean-spirited comedy, and if you don’t know your limit, Bad Words will certainly test it. For my part, comedy either works or it doesn’t, and it works when the people who make the jokes know what they’re doing. Bateman’s directing isn’t audacious, but he’s the perfect choice for this kind of role, and the main reason why Bad Words can give a big, smiling middle finger to dejected children.