Review by-Jarrett Leahy
A contemptible 40-year-old dropout hellbent on exacting revenge against the world, finds an eligibility loophole that allows him to compete in the renowned Golden Quill National Spelling Bee. Threatening legal action if he isn’t permitted to participate, his reluctant admittance sets off a whirlwind of disdain and mockery from both officials and angry parents who claim his participation besmirches the reputation of this prestigious competition.
Bad Words is the feature directorial debut of comedy veteran Jason Bateman. Being the first filmmaking effort for both him and screenwriter Andrew Dodge, the movie showcases their exaggerated and often twisted senses of humor. These two collaborators weren’t shackled by any past success or expectations which allowed them the creative freedom to take some refreshingly original comedic risks born of their endeavors to make each other laugh. Bateman’s knowledge as a filmmaker was honed through directing the occasional episode on the various television series he worked on over the years. His know-how and dexterity to competently juggle both behind-the-camera and acting duties make me hope Bad Words is just the beginning for Bateman as a director.
As a comedian, Jason Bateman has quietly turned himself into the droll prince of dark humor, a branch of comedy that requires the astutely deft skill of toeing the line of offensiveness without ever crossing it. While casting himself in this lead role may have originally been done out of desperation, hindsight says this was a no-brainer, as Guy Trilby is simply right up Bateman’s comedic alley. In fact, I struggled to come up with another comedian who could actually make this contemptuous bastard a likable guy like he so expertly manages to do. The vitriol and malice of Guy’s verbal assaults are hilariously coarse and foul-mouthed yet delivered in the most aloof and impassive irreverence, so you can’t help but shake your head and chuckle at the verbosity of his insolence. However, this character, with all his bluster and hubris, is simply a hurt and lost individual whose single-minded desire to enact vengeance has blinded him to the pain his petulant outbursts cause other people. As the story unfolds, we observe subtle nuances in Bateman’s facial expressions showing this once impenetrable wall of defense is slowly coming down, thanks in large part to his newly found partner in crime.
The true scene (and heart) stealer of Bad Words is 8-year-old Rohan Chand. Chand was originally discovered by a casting director while playing little league baseball which lead to his first acting gig in the relatively forgettable 2011 Adam Sandler comedy, Jack and Jill. While you never know what to expect with child actors, especially ones so fresh to the business, right from his opening scene, it was quite apparent that Chand was perfectly cast to play fellow spelling bee competitor Chaitanya Chopra. Being a former child star himself, Bateman’s sincere affection for his pint-sized sidekick is unmistakable. Not only did Chand hold his own when collaborating with his much older adversary, his sincere, lovable, and wide-eyed innocence offers a heartwarming hilarity that fittingly balances Bateman’s biting irreverence. Together, these two share a side-splitting onscreen partnership that I couldn’t help but compare to another classic raunchy comedy, Bad Santa.
Comedy is in the mind of the beholder, and some will likely find the humor of Bad Words to be too flagrant. However, as Bateman says during his behind the scenes interviews, the dark humor his cynical character so shrewdly spews out is delivered in ignorance, not hatred, and is mitigated by narration that openly admits many of his aberrant actions went way too far. It doesn’t take a scholar to realize the premise of Bad Words is a bit absurd, but what makes this comedy so darn entertaining is the affinity shared between the two lead characters and the genuine fondness veteran actor Jason Bateman has for this very personal venture as a first-time director. Filled with laughs from start to finish, I have little problem declaring Bad Words the most consistently amusing comedy I’ve seen so far in 2014.