Bad Words is Jason Bateman’s directorial feature (although he’s technically been directing television for years now), so there’s plenty riding on the film to see if Bateman’s truly got the chops to make a future out of it. While Bateman directing and acting in his own feature leads to a lot of interesting directorial decisions, it turns out that all of that could completely fall flat if that skill isn’t supported by a good, or at least interesting screenplay.
Bad Words is not the comedy it’s been advertised as. It’s a dramatic film that tests the limits of how much you’re willing to sit through expletives in the effort that one of those expletives will lead to a joke. In fact, the film’s much better if you aren’t supposed to believe it’s a comedy.
[This review was originally posted as part of our coverage of South by Southwest 2014. It is being reposted to coincide with the film’s wide release.]
Director: Jason Bateman
Release Date: March 28, 2014
Bad Words follows Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman), a 40 year old man who has never passed the eighth grade and is using a loophole in order to enter a The Golden Quill (a national spelling bee) for mysterious reasons. During the bee he meets Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), a young boy who wants to become best friends with Guy.
The greatest decision the screenplay actually makes is its brisk pace. You can’t accuse Bad Words for overstaying its welcome (even when confronted with some dubious decision making). Instead of running the gamut of Guy competing in several different bees before entering the national competition, it starts right off at the Regional Championship. This introductory sequence sets a fun tone for the film that unfortunately is never lived up to. But the weird thing is, it’s visually appealing. As mentioned before, the faults with the film can’t really be attributed to the direction as Bateman actually makes some wonderful filmic choices.
Surprisingly enough, the film is shot beautifully. The entire film is laced with a green hue that sets this Spelling Bee within a fantastical world. Each character is either dressed or referred to in a way that purposefully muddies the time period Words is supposed to take place in. Just when you’re thinking “just how seriously are these parents taking this Spelling Bee?” you realize one of the moms is dressed in a jean shirt and an up do. A neat visual clash between the nostalgic and the current takes place as Guy seems to be the only one in this film world who’s allowed to dress like he’s from our present time. But as teased earlier in the review, the visuals seem to be the only appealing aspect of the film.
Your response to the humor in the film relies entirely on how much you enjoy Jason Bateman’s standard roles. With Guy, he has a bit more of a dramatic resonance, but it eventually devolves into the stuff Bateman’s done in the past. He’s the jerk you’re supposed to love. But by necessitating a need to pity Guy for his poor development and harsh childhood, it throws a wrench into Bateman’s dynamic. It’s one of those “laughing with versus laughing at” problems that really seems like a better idea on paper.
But that’s just Bad Words in a nutshell. A film packed with neat ideas that isn’t executed well because of a rough screenplay. It’s just kind of sad because all of the cogs are running properly as some scenes look fantastic, some scenes are inspired, and the world is established well. If only it could’ve decided whether or not it wanted to be taken seriously. Honestly if the film would’ve had a more dramatic angle and the pity toward Guy’s character was explored further, we would’ve had a great film on our hands.
But as it stands, we’ve got a film rooted firmly in the middle. You may get a laugh or two at some of the more “outrageous” jokes,but most of the time you’ll be left wondering why you started watching the film in the first place.