There is a current trend in R-rated comedies where it is all right to be raunchy as long as there is an undercurrent of sweetness to combat the sour put-downs and filthy jokes. Therefore, the challenge of the genre lies in how the writer and director balance these two poles. If they hold back too much on the crude language and vulgar jokes, it is a waste of an R-rating. If they hold back on the humanity behind the characters, it is a waste of storytelling. If they hold back on both, as screenwriter Andrew Dodge and director Jason Bateman do with Bad Words, it is just a waste.
Bateman does double duty here as director and lead actor as he plays Guy Trilby, a man suffering from a kind of arrested development. The 40-year-old bachelor finds a loophole in a national spelling bee, the Golden Quill, and uses it to his advantage. As one rule stipulates that participants must not have passed the eighth grade, elementary school flunkster Trilby decides to challenge pre-pubescent students and take home a big trophy.
Why would a man sink to ridiculing a competition as sacred as a national spelling bee? Journalist Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn) accompanies Trilby on his journey to the finals, hoping to uncover his motives. However, her attempts to manipulate and get closer to him through sex backfire, since there is almost no chemistry between them. Also along for the ride is an exuberant South Asian spelling bee contestant, Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand, who Homeland fans may recognize as Issa from season one), who finds friendly competition and a possible friend with the misanthropic Trilby.
The richest moments from Bad Words comes from the bonding between the foul-mouthed Trilby, who has some colourful terms for female genitalia, and the fiercely by-the-book Chopra, who spends more time with the binder filled with cue cards of difficult words (named “Todd”) than real people. Chopra likely walks through his school hallways with a mark on his back so that bullies can pounce. Back in the day, Trilby was probably one of those misguided bullies who liked to curse and defy authority. The middle half-hour of the film, when Chopra and Trilby bond through a raucous night on the town full of liquor, shoplifting and prostitutes, gives potential for these opposites to attract. However, when an unconvincing plot twist tears the characters apart, Dodge’s attempt to repair the friends by the end comes off as forced.
And therein lies the issue with Bateman’s film: although a lot of what comes out of the actor’s mouth is furiously foul and fresh, the rest of the film is stale and reliant on tired character tropes. Hahn’s character is an offensive portrayal of a journalist that relies on stereotypes: she is so desperate to break a story that she seduces her source. Chand is a real find, but he is left with a disciplining father cliché and a loneliness that is not explored with much depth. Allison Janney has an extended cameo as the disapproving head of the Golden Quill, who predictably has some choice words for Trilby, but makes as slight an impression as a character played by Janney can make.
Furthermore, when Bad Words reveals Trilby’s purpose for entering the tournament, it is a timid plot twist, as well as an unconvincing motivation. By this point in the film, the protagonist is not much of a person to root for. Bateman, who has made a career playing the straight guy with a slight edge on film and television, uses the same sarcastic scowl and smugness in every scene. His snaky, arrogant charm is amusing at first, but there is little variation from this performance as Bad Words proceeds.
For his first turn behind the camera, the actor does not have many tricks up his sleeve, and he bathes the film in a brownish tint that makes Bad Words look more low-rent than it should. On the bright side, he helps to mine a breakthrough performance from Chand and also has a bit of fun with the sly conversations between spelling bee commentators played by Ben Falcone and Philip Baker Hall (which recall, coincidentally, Bateman’s caustically funny turn at the end of Dodgeball).
Late in Bad Words, one character spells the word “inchoate” incorrectly. The adjective comes from the Latin word “inchoatus.” Its definitions, according to the Merrian-Webster Dictionary, are: 1) being only partly in existence or operation, and 2) imperfectly formed or formulated. If I could use the word in a sentence while utilizing both meanings, it would be, “Bad Words is filled with flat, inchoate characters, as well as an inchoate sense of humour.” And I think that sums up the film perfectly.
Jason Bateman’s Bad Words is only sporadically funny, the victim of a screenplay full of characters and situations suffering from an arrested development.