Movies Without Pity

Bad Words: Under His Spell

by Ethan Alter March 14, 2014 6:00 am
<i>Bad Words</i>: Under His Spell

The title of Jason Bateman's directorial debut, Bad Words, isn't the only thing that's reminiscent of another dark comedy about a not-very-nice-person, 2003's holiday classic, Bad Santa. Both films seek to get a lot of comic mileage out of watching their central creeps treat everyone around them -- adults and, especially, children -- like dirt as they put in motion a scheme for personal fun and profit. Where Bad Santa has the courage of its convictions, though, Bad Words gets squishy and sentimental as it approaches its endgame, operating on the mistaken assumption that it needs to explain its anti-hero's pathology and, thus, let him off the hook for his behavior.

Before it arrives to that misguided final act, there's some good bad fun to be had with Bad Words, much of it stemming from Bateman's hilariously angry star turn, which takes the overt obnoxiousness and determined narcissism that dominated Michael Bluth's personality in Season 4 of Arrested Development and elevates it to the nth degree. Andrew Dodge's script hands the actor/director the plum role of Guy Trilby, an eighth-grade dropout who has reached his 40th birthday with no significant accomplishments to speak of. But he's about to make major waves by entering a spelling bee reserved for children thanks to a minor loophole that's just large enough for him to squeeze his eligibility through. Handily defeating his youthful competition at the regional qualifying rounds, through a mixture of intimidation and better spelling, Guy turns up for the national championship, which, not coincidentally, will be televised for the first time this year. Accompanying him on this journey is the online journalist sponsoring his trip, Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), who isn't exactly a paragon of virtue herself. Though Guy expects to cruise to victory, he does face a significant challenge from 10-year-old dynamo Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand) -- a kid whose spelling prowess is matched only by his wide-eyed naïveté.

I probably don't have to tell you that, despite his initial animosity towards the overeager Chaitanya, Guy eventually, reluctantly becomes the boy's friend, especially once it becomes clear that he suffers from the same daddy issues that turn out to play a significant role in his infiltration of this innocent spelling bee. Dodge's scripting of this relationship is total bunk, relying heavily on the shock value of watching the big, bad older dude introduce his young accomplice to the pleasures of drinking, swearing and gawking at a prostitute's jubblies. (The elder malcontents of Bad Santa and last year's Bad Grandpa both found more creative and amusing ways of corrupting their youthful partners.) But Bateman and Chand sell the evolution of this unlikely friendship more effectively than you might expect. It's certainly a more believable relationship than the one Guy shares with Jenny, a one-note character whose chief personality trait is a mile-wide streak of self-loathing that permits her to kinda sorta fall for her subject, a development that's at best unconvincing and at worst, insulting.

Bad Words does have one reliable source of laughs and that's the sight of Bateman stomping on the hopes and dreams of the bright-eyed spelling bee contestants until they're sniveling messes. Where Billy Bob Thornton's bad boy Santa looked like the drunken creep he was, Bateman's handsomeness and approachability projects a seemingly affable personality on Guy… at least until he opens his mouth and spews a torrent of venom. (His performance, by the way, is more layered and surprising than his direction, which is nondescript to the point of anonymity.) The actor is fearlessly committed to playing an unrepentant asshole -- the kind that Denis Leary lustily sings about -- which is precisely why it's so disappointing when Dodge goes out of his way to concoct a half-assed explanation for the character's bad attitude. No matter how you spell it, it's a big mistake.

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