by Matt Levine
Here is a guaranteed litmus test to determine whether or not you will enjoy Bad Words. First, read the following: Fuck. Cocksucker. Ballsack. Curry hole. If you’re already doubled over with laughter, this is the movie for you. If, on the other hand, you do not believe that merely mentioning obscenities is the pinnacle of sharp-minded wit, then pretty much anything else currently in theaters would be a better option. (And yes, I’m including Tyler Perry’s The Single Moms Club in that proclamation.) This is the directorial debut of Jason Bateman, but whatever comedic chops the likeable actor displayed in Arrested Development or, more fleetingly, mediocre comedies like Horrible Bosses is nowhere to be found here, either in front of or behind the camera. From its lifeless story to its self-satisfied punchlines, Bad Words exudes smug laziness rather than gleeful vulgarity; even the movie’s mean streak seems half-assed.
Director: Jason Bateman
Producers: Jason Bateman, Jeff Culotta, Ted Hamm, Sean McKittrick, Mason Novick
Writer: Andrew Dodge
Cinematographer: Ken Seng
Editor: Tatiana S. Riegel
Music: Rolfe Kent
Cast: Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Rohan Chand, Philip Baker Hall, Allison Janney, Ben Falcone, Steve Witting
Premiere: September 6, 2013 – Toronto International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: March 14, 2014
US Distributor: Focus Features
Andrew Dodge’s screenplay made it onto The Black List (Hollywood’s unofficial roster of best unproduced scripts) in 2011, which is somewhat inexplicable, considering it’s merely a crude retracing of the lamest black-comedy clichés. Bateman plays 40-something Guy Trilby, a perpetually irritated proofreader who exploits a loophole in the Golden Quill National Spelling Bee bylaws to compete with precocious adolescents for the bookish prize. Spelling bee contestants are typically seen as dedicated, erudite brainiacs possibly driven by demanding parents—an image of clean-cut studiousness which, when contrasted with Guy’s overzealous profanity, is supposed to provide Bad Words with its comedic foundation. That juxtaposition is numbingly conveyed by Guy’s burgeoning friendship with pre-middle schooler Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), a sweet-tempered Indian kid with a tyrannical father who smilingly puts up with Guy’s improprieties, racial and otherwise. Guy enjoys calling Chaitanya “slumdog,” for example, and initially threatens to inform an airline crew that Chaitanya’s carry-on luggage is “ticking”—the jokes are contradictory as well as completely unfunny.
There is, of course, an underlying motivation for Guy’s participation in the Golden Quill, a plot twist based in familial resentment that is “dramatically” revealed to us in the film’s final third (though any viewer paying even a modicum of attention will be able to predict it long beforehand). It’s no surprise that the film’s emotional undercurrent fails as drastically as its humor—without having made any attempts to build character development or make these figures resemble real people, the audience is expected to be touched by their deep-rooted insecurities. Before reaching such a flat conclusion, however, we’re treated to scenes of Guy and Chaitanya bonding through such acts as hiding a lobster in a toilet and waiting to watch it latch on to a man’s scrotum, or paying a hooker to expose her enormous breasts. Hilarious!
As is the case with any comedy that makes a smug show of its mean-spiritedness, Bad Words hides a cuddly center: Guy and Chaitanya develop a faux-father-son intimacy as they both learn the value of forgiveness and companionship. That kind of thing works in something like Bad Santa, in which the crude humor is actually funny and the heartwarming elements are subtly smuggled in, but neither Dodge nor Bateman have the writing or directorial astuteness to pull it off here. The fact that an upraised middle finger becomes an expression of sincere friendship is a clear demonstration of the movie’s juvenile humor as well as its strained attempts at pathos. It’s a bad sign that the foremost pleasure this film offers is the esoteric appeal of the words featured in the spelling bee scenes—though I’d rather make use of a word like “absquatulate” without having to suffer through an awful 90-minute comedy.
The movie’s aesthetic does nothing to dissuade us of the notion that this is just a formulaic comedy embracing a love for profanity: there isn’t a single moment of visual ingenuity in the entire film, as the cinematography is a brain-dead point-and-shoot affair (which is especially unfortunate since the spelling bee setting might have provided some unique and effective point-of-view shots). Bad Words simply plods along until its arbitrary ending, failing on both its comedic and dramatic fronts. My distaste for the movie has nothing to do with its vulgarity or its showboating malice, as both are clearly window-dressing for a lazy and unctuous comedy. By the end, lessons are learned and friendships forged but, to adopt the film’s preferred parlance, who gives a fuck?