Does the act of swearing still truly freak people out? In a time where people can call one another dicks on network television (thanks, Parks & Recreation!), and cable has become a den of meth, exploding dead people, and moderate profanity, it seems less and less likely that things like little kids uttering obscenities and adults volleying them at said kids would still be shocking. But you’d be pressed to find evidence against it in Bad Words, Jason Bateman’s feature-length directorial debut. The film traffics heavily in four-letter words, and more elaborate ones as well, which is a good thing given that these are pretty much the only source of comedy offered by Bateman and screenwriter Andrew Dodge.
Having said that, Bateman is able to mine more laughs than he probably should from the film’s high concept premise. He stars as Guy Trillby, a 40-year-old ne’er-do-well who discovers a loophole in the bylaws of the Golden Quill National Spelling Bee that allows him to compete due to his never having finished the eighth grade. Guy might be an immature, borderline sociopathic prick, but he’s also fully driven by some unknown purpose. It doesn’t hurt that the financially despondent Guy’s insane quest is bankrolled by Jenny (Kathryn Hahn), a reporter interested in finding out exactly what Guy is up to. However, Guy’s mission is impeded by his burgeoning friendship with Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), a fellow contestant who in his own way is just as much an outcast in this niche universe as Guy is.
What hurts Bad Words is its inability to understand that swear words are scarcely enough to sustain a movie. Though Bateman’s timing and Chand’s remarkable chemistry with his older costar carry that one joke a lot farther than it should by all accounts go, the film still doesn’t have a lot up its sleeve once you get past the novelty of an immature grown man waging psychological warfare on children. The film’s audacity in this regard is both a blessing and a curse; a few of the more excessive moments offer the biggest laughs, but it also leads to the film winking at the audience a bit too often, nudging you with its elbow as if to ask “oh, aren’t we so dirty?” The film also underdevelops much of its story, particularly Guy’s feuds with the bee’s meticulous manager (Allison Janney) and his relationship with Jenny. Hahn wrings what she can from a one-note character, but can only do so much when her primary character traits fall under “has sex with protagonist” and “is shrill.”
But yet, again, Bad Words works at points. Bateman’s direction is assured, and though the film’s interest in speed ramping comes off as an overly showy stylistic choice, he paints Pasadena, CA in worn-out browns and muted hues. The film looks as low-rent and lurid as Guy, and it works. And again, the two performances at the film’s center just work. Bateman has a perfect handle on Guy, slurring his way through a good chunk of the movie and treating the younger Chaitanya with a mixture of contempt, puzzlement, and pity. Chand, meanwhile, is the doe-eyed innocent who comes alive through corruption, but manages to give Chaitanya a shrewd streak that establishes him as Bateman’s equal and not his victim. And even though you’ll see most of the film’s denouement coming from a mile away from pretty early on, the sweetness of the inevitable final battle of wits is surprisingly satisfying because of these two boys, one older in age, who deserve one another in every sense.