Judge Clark Douglas thinks you should flipping read this gosh-darned review.
The end justifies the means.
"I didn't come here to lose."
Facts of the Case
Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman, Arrested Development) is a man on a mission. Unfortunately, the mission is managing to irritate and confuse everyone in his path. Exploiting a rulebook loophole, Guy has determined to enter a national spelling bee competition intended only for middle-schoolers. The authority figures who run the bee are outraged, but there's nothing they can legally do to stop him. Making matters worse: Guy is entirely too willing to resort to shameless measures to humiliate and defeat the other contestants. However, there's one kid Guy can't seem to irritate: Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand, Lone Survivor), a bright-eyed, friendly fellow who is completely enamored by his foul-mouthed competitor. Over time, Guy begins to show signs of warmth and softness, but never loses his resolve to win the competition. What is driving Guy to this bizarre behavior?
Bad Words is the directorial debut of noted comic actor Jason Bateman, and if nothing else it proves that the actor has a keen understanding of his comic strengths. It's a terrific showcase for Bateman's comic timing, allowing him to play a character who is considerably nastier than usual, but still rooted in that can't-miss combination of stressed-out exasperation, withering insults and condescending smugness. However, Bateman's film suffers from a case of schizophrenia. Much of the time, it's a filthy comedy which serves as a showcase for all sorts of outrageous behavior. Other times, it's a bittersweet, affecting tale of a man's odd, misguided quest for personal vindication. Unfortunately, the two sides never really congeal.
It's not a surprise that the film's marketing campaign (and even its title) focused on the nastier side, and the movie has some admittedly entertaining moment of shock humor. Though the whole "doing inappropriate things around kids" premise is a little wheezy, Bateman puts enough gleeful venom into his crudest line readings to make them morbidly enjoyable. "This is terrible," my wife said with a laugh, and many other viewers are sure to have a similar reaction. However, the film makes the mistake of going too broad with its laughs. It's one thing when Bateman nastily attempts to irritate a woman by colorfully insulting her genitalia. It's another thing when that same woman starts having a meltdown in the middle of a spelling bee and starts yelling about how remarkable her genitalia is. Amusing in theory, I guess, but not convincing human behavior.
That's only a problem because there are portions of the movie which are very clearly rooted in recognizable human emotion. The secret behind Bateman's quest will be pretty obvious to viewers paying even a small amount of attention, but when the scenes of revelation finally arrive, they're delivered with real weight and substance. These aren't the cheap "dramatic" scenes which often serve as filler in comedies like these; these scenes are actually rather moving and superbly-acted. As such, when we shift from these moments to scenes which feel like they're taking place on a whole different plane of reality, the movie suffers.
I'm also of two minds about the relationship between Guy Trilby and the adorable Chaitanya. On the one hand, the two actors share terrific chemistry together, and there's an undeniable pleasure to seeing Guy cheerfully corrupt the little kid. I also liked a couple of the third-act plot developments the film offers which subvert some traditional storytelling tropes in a fresh, surprising way. However, there are times when the kid just seems too impossibly precocious in the way that only movie kids can. He exists primarily to warm the heart of Guy and the audience, but he feels artificially manufactured. Even so, Chopra's radiant charisma is so prominent that he makes it tempting to overlook some moments of clunky writing.
Bateman and Chopra are given the bulk of the screentime, but a handful of capable supporting players do fine work in smaller roles. Allison Janney (Masters of Sex) and Philip Baker Hall (Magnolia) bring their authoritative presence to the roles of spelling bee officials, and their no-nonsense characters never feel like lazy stereotypes. I also liked Kathryn Hahn's turn as the long-suffering reporter attempting to uncover Bateman's secret—she's required to leap back and forth between the film's goofy and serious sides, and she handles both with ease.
Bad Words (Blu-ray) offers a superb 1080p/2.40:1 transfer. The first thing you'll notice about Bad Words is that it doesn't look like a standard studio comedy. Using moody, almost sepia-toned filters and cinematography which is slightly more dynamic than the genre usually offers, Bateman's film offers the respectful, subdued polish of a Ron Howard or Clint Eastwood flick—at times it feels like a period film set in the '70s. Detail is superb throughout, and depth is exceptional. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is effective, too, highlighting an above-average score from Rolfe Kent (like the movie, it's surprisingly good with the dramatic stuff—some really soulful material). Sound design is minimal, but effectively employed. Supplements include a low-key commentary with Bateman, a standard EPK-style making-of featurette, some deleted scenes, a DVD copy and a digital copy. Pretty typical package.
Bad Words is funny, engaging and makes fine use of Bateman's talents both in front of and behind the camera. Even so, it's hard not to feel that it misses much of its potential. Worth a look, but I suspect Batemen will eventually deliver something superior.
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