Foul-Mouthed Words Spells Comedy S-U-C-C-E-S-S
The Golden Quill national spelling bee thought it could handle any problem that might arise as the journey towards crowning a champion is embarked upon. After all, this is the premier event for adolescent spellers. Considering the participants a few unruly parents and a missed curfew or two, coupled with the wonky pronunciation of an especially difficult word during the competition itself, is about the worst founder Dr. Bowman (Philip Baker Hall) and longtime lead administrator Dr. Bernice Deagan (Allison Janney) could ever have anticipated. Until now.
Enter Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman). A 40-year-old High School dropout with a razor-sharp intellect, a bleak sense of humor, a total lack of propriety and a spectacular ability to spell, he’s found a loophole in the Golden Quill’s rulebook allowing him to compete against the pint-sized, pimple-faced entrants. With the aid of bewildered yet intrigued online journalist Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), Guy isn’t just out to win he’s out to humiliate, the angry spelling phenom fighting a secret vendetta against the competition he’s refusing to talk about let alone reveal.
Bad Santa comparisons as far as Bad Words is concerned are unavoidable. Both are dark, coal black comedies filled with loads of crude humor and epic levels of sexually-laced vulgarities revolving around worlds, situations and people usually given a far more family-friendly treatment by the majority of filmmakers. Both have unlikable narcissists who appear to hate themselves almost as much as they despise the world itself at their center. Finally, both also throw a young child into the mix, pre-teen boys looking for father figures who find the most unlikely one of them all in the form of the uncouth, potty-mouthed adult unceremoniously thrust into their midst.
Bad Santa, directed by Terry Zwigoff, written by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, is something of a minor, modern masterpiece of ribald humor and uncompromising, unsentimental insights into the human condition. Bad Words, directed by star Bateman, written by relative newcomer Andrew Dodge, likely will not hold up near as well when it’s a decade old, its laughs a little more obvious and the insights it professes not especially profound. All the same, much like its in-spirit counterpart, this R-rated, quickly paced and intelligently constructed character study has a ton of laughs and more than its fair share of winning moments. It’s a good movie and a better comedy, and I have this sneaky suspicion Bateman’s debut behind the camera is one I’ll be revisiting relatively soon.
I like that, as a filmmaker, Bateman takes his cue from how he approaches the majority of his performances, taking no prisoners and refusing to bow to expected conventions. He doesn’t sugarcoat, doesn’t look for the easy way out of uncomfortable situations, allowing the inherent emotion, drama, pain and pathos as described and delivered to speak for itself, the rest by damned. Bateman and Dodge find humor in the most horrifying displays of human behavior thus allowing for sharp, acid-laced bits of commentary that sting and startle just as much as they loudly announce unavoidable truths.
Not that convention is entirely avoided. Even though the climactic sequences don’t go quite like you think they will they still follow a fairly typical pattern making them both unsurprising and disappointingly forgettable. There are certain aspects that can’t help but get stranded in genre cliché, the final few minutes particularly flat which can’t help but be upsetting considering just how strong everything leading up to the climax happily proves to be.
On the plus side, Bateman is on fire in the lead role, not so much playing against type or doing anything we haven’t seen before but instead just doing what he does better than he has in what feels like an exceedingly long time. His rapport with Hahn borders on awesome, the two making surprisingly sexy sparing partners their chemistry coming shockingly close to Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn levels of brainy intensity. Better, he’s just as good with child actor Rohan Chand, their relationship eschewing the majority of conventionalities and commonplaces (save until the end, sadly) allowing their scenes to have a comedic eccentricity I wanted to stand up and cheer.
Bad Words doesn’t do anything new. The movie doesn’t break the mold or change the template up in any noticeable fashion. But Bateman’s directorial debut entertains, oftentimes awesomely, the darkly dexterous nature of the comedy and the characterizations hitting the mark far more often than they miss them. It heads to the podium, refuses to show fear and doesn’t back down even when what’s being asked sounds impossible (or unpronounceable, either-or); if that doesn’t spell S-U-C-C-E-S-S than I don’t know what else would.
Film Rating: 3 out of 4