Directed by: Jason Bateman.
Written by: Andrew Dodge.
Starring: Jason Bateman (Guy Trilby), Kathryn Hahn (Jenny Widgeon), Rohan Chand (Chaitanya Chopra), Philip Baker Hall (Dr. Bowman), Allison Janney (Dr. Bernice Deagan), Ben Falcone (Pete Fowler), Steve Witting (Proctor at Spelling Bee).
The more films like Jason Bateman’s Bad Words I see, the more I realize just what an accomplishment Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa (2003) really was. The films share a very basic setup – that a man who should not be around children, gets stuck hanging out with them for an extended period of time – says and does all sorts of hilariously inappropriate things to them, and eventually the man who seems like an irredeemable asshole ends up really feeling for the kid who he spent the entire movie being annoyed with. The difference between Bad Santa and Bad Words really is simple – Bad Santa is hilarious – one of the best comedies of the 2000s, and Bad Words is rather dull and boring, and even at 89 minutes feels drawn out and boring.
Bad Words marks the directorial debut of its star Jason Bateman. In it, he plays Guy Trilby, who finds a loophole in the National Spelling Bee rules that allows him – a 40-something year old man – compete against children. He’s some sort of genius – and a complete asshole – and after a regional bee, he ends up at the National one that will be televised. The whole thing is being bankrolled by a reporter, Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn) – who expects to get a good story out of this, although Guy won’t answer any questions about why he’s doing what’s he’s doing. The two do sleep together though, even though all indications are that they hate each other. Guy has that effect on people. The head of the bee – Bernice (Allison Janney) tries everything she can think of to get rid of him, and the bee’s founder Dr. Bowman (Philip Baker Hall) fumes that Guy is making a mockery out of everything he loves. Only one contestant – Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand) – seems to like Guy. He’s staying at the same hotel – right down the hall – and doesn’t seem to get that everything Guy says to him is horrible offensive, racist and inappropriate for a 10 year old.
The idea behind Bad Words is ridiculous – I’m going to assume there is no way that a 40 year old man could compete in this spelling bee – but I’ve seen comedies which stupider premises end up being hilarious. Bad Words isn’t funny though. It basically alternates between two kinds of scenes – the first has Bateman say horribly profane, offensive things – which Bateman is capable of doing, and he makes some of them funny – and the second, the more dramatic scenes where eventually why Trilby is doing what he’s doing comes out, and he bonds with Chaitanya, mostly because both have assholes for fathers. Comedy requires momentum –it requires scenes to build on each other to pay off. Bateman never really gets the pacing of the movie correct. The best scene is probably the first – where Bateman sets up the movie with a quick, funny scene at the regional bee. That scene works, and makes you want to see where the movie is going. Unfortunately, where the movie is going is basically that same scene again and again and again.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Bad Words – something Bad Santa avoided completely – is that all the characters in the movie aside for Bateman are lifeless, dull and uninteresting. That’s a shame – and more a fault of the writing than the acting, as the likes of Hahn, Janney and Baker Hall can be great – but they simply are not given the material to work with here. Think of all the interesting supporting characters in Bad Santa – from John Ritter to Bernie Mac to Lauren Graham to Tony Cox to Cloris Leachman. Some only got a scene or two, but they all leave an impression. Not so much with Bad Words.
It’s probably not really fair to compare Bad Words to Bad Santa- not many modern comedies are nearly as good as Bad Santa are. But watching Bad Words I couldn’t help but think of the earlier film. It does everything Bateman tries, and fails, to do in his film brilliantly. No wonder it’s become such a cult hit. I doubt Bad Words will.