[Review] - Bad Words

Courtesy of Darko Entertainment
George Carlin maintained that there are no bad words, just bad intentions. There are no bad intentions with Bad Words, Jason Bateman's directorial debut. And when you get down to it, not really that many bad words either. The film has a heavier foundations in emotional drama than most of the films opting for the "Bad" genre of extreme comedy. And while it does occasionally reveal in bursts of over-the-line offensiveness, it never strays too far, and always feels fit to pull itself back.

Normally, I'd say this riding-the-fence mentality was a sign of skittishness on the part of the filmmaker, but here it makes a certain sense. The film holds together better because of the back and forth. That's not to say it is a perfect film; there is much room for improvement. But as the freshman product from both Bateman behind the camera, and writer Andrew Dodge behind the pen, it's a more solid effort that you might expect.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that DON'T LOOK AT ME!

The script for this film is simple, and that's not a complaint. Dodge has whittled the plot down to the barest bones of the story, and that's the way to keep a concept comedy rounded: eliminate distractions. It would be easy to get bogged down in little things along the way, or worse, build up the concept beyond what it can handle. A 40 year old man competes in a children's spelling bee that could go off the rails by focusing too much on the competition and not enough on the motivation. Which is where most sports movies fall in on themselves. The sport becomes the focus, not the players. And I feel that Dodge learned a lot of lessons from terrible Disney movies about underdogs defying expectations. Here, there are two bees: one to set up the concept, and one that provides the main focus of the film. The rest of the time is spent finding out about Guy (Bateman) and why he is doing this.

I say Dodge must have watched those insufferable sports films, because he manages to undercut the standard tropes of that genre all along the way. This film is Mighty Ducks, but with less learning lessons and more liquor. The found friendship is actually a long-con manipulation. The act of personal betterment is actually a petty bit of vengeance. The inspiring victory at the end of the contest is an extended sequence of stubbornness and embarrassment. The personal relationships are less growing and loving as they are desperate and empty. It's the cynical version of a happy ending: everything works out as best as could be expected. Everyone finishes the film in essentially the same condition they began, just slightly less bitter than when they went in.

The film exudes confidence and competency from behind the camera, and in front of it. Bateman wisely filled the film with top notch talent: not A-listers, but character actors who could be guaranteed to turn out a quality performance. Katheryn Hahn, Allison Janney and Phillip Baker Hall fill out the front line cast, and the rest of the film is filled with familiar faces, enough to get anyone playing a "Hey, that Guy" drinking game well drunk. Bateman's direction is, like the script, does exactly what the film needs. There aren't any extravagant flourishes, or overly artistic distractions. The camera catches what it needs, with just enough energy that you can tell Bateman is enjoying himself.

Where the film lacks is in details. Guy's emotional journey concerning his reasons for joining the contest are well explored, but everything else just gets a dusting. His relationship with 9 year old Chaitanya (Rohan Chand) is meant to be the crux of the film, but everything about it feels rushed. Their evening of bonding gets mostly swallowed up in a montage, which holds together, but seems like it could have used more build up. Same too with their schemes against one another once Guy discovers their "friendship" was just a plot to undermine his performance. It would have been nice to see more than just one volley lobbed by each combatant.

Equally under-elaborated is Hahn's reporter character. Her purpose in the narrative is obvious: to provide exposition for Guy's motivation. But her relationship with Guy himself is adversarial, until it isn't. The end of the film suggests they've developed less antagonistic feelings towards each other, but we don't get to see the origins of those feelings from her end. And Janney and Hall share the roll of the film's villain, but are apparently on a time share program. Once Hall's role is defined, Janney is dispensable and is cast aside without prejudice. It makes sense from a narrative perspective, but Janney is delicious and the audience justifiably wants more.

Despite the title, and the expectation, Bad Words isn't as foul as some comedies (it isn't Movie 42, for example). Guy curses, but he's pretty much the only one (at least, the only one who does it with impunity). At one point in the film, I thought that everyone else in the movie is reacting to Guy in a very real world way: to his actions, and to his words. This is what it would be like to interact with a complete asshole, someone with no filter and no empathy. There is cursing, and a little (completely unsexy) sex, and some brief nudity. But unlike some movies, none of those things are focus of the film. It isn't built around those elements, it's built around the characters, and uses the elements as building blocks. Which is exactly how movies should be made.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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