Directed by Jason Bateman
Starring Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Rohan Chand, Philip Baker Hall, Allison Janney, Steve Witting
Jason Bateman‘s directorial debut, Bad Words, is aptly congruously to his post-Arrested Development career. That is, it’s no good. Like Identity Thief and The Change-Up before it, Bateman has proved that having his name on a movie’s billing is a blaring warning sign of slow and low-blow comedy to come, a notice of an impending La Brea-sized originality tar pit, a Bat-Signal in the shape of a crotch kick. While some of us may have suspected Bateman of being on the receiving end of some Les Grossman-level manhandling – a puppet maliciously directed into comic obscurity – as the proud director of this comedy clunker, Bateman has shown his wisecracker cards, revealing that he may not be playing with a full comic’s deck after all.
To call him a hack seems harsh but it’s the only description I can find fitting the dreck that he continuously churns out. The pedestrianly crafted Bad Words, for example, earns Bateman his gold standard R-rating with a string of unimaginative and unfunny curse words. Since R-rated comedies have turned into something of a marketable commodity since the first Hangover movie, we’ve seen more and more comedies (which once mostly existed within the PG-13 realm) turn to this “Restricted” hail sign. But rather than employ that R-rating to their artistic advantage, the folks behind the helm of Bad Words simply use it to check mark their way through George Carlin‘s seven dirty words like a record stuck on repeat. In essence, Batman has made the equivalent of a feature film version of the Blink-182 song so sophisticated titled “Shit Piss Fuck”. Charming.
Comedy being as sink or swim as it it, it’s a true tragedy that Bateman has relied on the life raft of obscenity to keep him afloat over the past five year. Subbing in swear words for jokes is a shortcut cohabiting the same hoary level of the time-honored fart. The first time history heard a squeak of gas passing through an actor’s anal cavity and into the light of day, it must have been an uproariously occasion. The first time the word ‘fuck’ was used in the film Ulysses (1967), I’m sure people were gasping “Well I never”s as they minted their juleps, pinkies upturned.
In 2014 though, we’re in a post-Three Stooges-era. Last year, we saw The Wolf of Wall Street drop the infamous f-bomb a total of 522 times. Though Wolf still probably wasn’t the easiest film for the more conservative film-goers to digest, it hardly elicited the “Off with their heads!” outrage that it would have in years past. So even though the crew behind this missed the message, us in the real world are aware of how humdrum and trite swear words in themselves have become. They’re not shocking, they’re not gasp-inducing, and when used as a fill in for comedy, they’re boring, inert and downright lazy. Now don’t get me wrong, I cuss like a sailor but it’s just part of my regular lexicon, not to be confused as a substitute for real comic goods. Batman and crew miss the distinction.
In Bateman and script writer Andrew Dodge‘s out-dated notion that everything needs to be racketed up to the next level, that bigger is indefinitely better, we come to see these bad words transform into snoozy strings of non-sequitors. Again though, it’s nothing more than lazy cliches playing dress up as comedy. If this is Bateman riffing, he needs to enroll in an improv course. If this junk was actually written down, Dodge shouldn’t quit his day job. With Bateman’s rump half-stuck down the farty, sweary rabbit hole, he’s stuck confusing racism, boobies and cussing for something truly funny. When he tells a 10-year old Indian kid to “shut his curry hole,” the writing is on the wall. And that’s only about 20 minutes in.
The premise itself is somewhat intriguing, if not at all profound: 40-odd-year old Guy Trilby (Bateman) enters spelling bee competitions after discovering a loophole that stipulates contestants must have have not yet finished the fourth grade. Being an elementary school dropout and gifted speller, there’s no regulations in place to keep him out of the contest that he’s become intent on winning. At the cost of becoming a national pariah and the target of scorn from hordes of maligned parents, Guy won’t reveal why he in enduring such derision. There’s a $50,000 prize at the end of the tunnel but we’re repeatedly told its about more than that. “Hmmm,” we think, “where could this all be going?” But after stringing us along for 88 minutes of watching Trilby be a flat out bad person, the ultimate payoff is unsatisfying and predictable. Another tired excuse for resolution, another narrative shrug.
No matter how adorable little Rohan Chand is as Guy’s unsuspecting sidekick, the chemistry to develop between the two feels like it was cooked up with all the artistry of a bowl of instant ramen. We’ve seen it before but, in the past, we’re at least lead to like the curmudgeonly protagonist by the end of it all. Here, it feels like we’re dealing with Holden Caulfield who’s bigged himself into Jason Bateman. Immature and unlikable throughout are not admirable traits in a main character. But in its attempts to be Bad Santa, its always more Bad Teacher. I guess if you find humor in being racist and borderline sexually abusive towards kids, you’ll probably get a kick out of Bad Words. Otherwise, it’s probably a good choice to avoid this one.