Thursday, April 3, 2014
Review: Bad Words
Bad Words, the directorial debut of actor Jason Bateman, puts way too much stock in the comedic potential of shock value. It is capable of being funny, sure, but it's a movie that works way better in its dramatic moments. The hook of the movie -- adult man enters kids' spelling bee -- is inherently comic, but Bad Words is at its best when it examines the anger that exists under the surface.
Bateman plays Guy Trilby, a genius-level 40-year old asshole who begins competing in children's spelling bees on a technical loophole. Hated by parents and the higher-ups at the National Quill spelling bee, Guy is unapologetic in the way he takes out his child competitors with mind games and bullying. As a friendship with fellow speller Chaitanya (Rohan Chand) begins to develop, the chinks in Guy's armor start to present themselves and the truth of his real motivations come to light.
After a string of not-great box office successes including Horrible Bosses and Identity Thief, he has finally built up enough clout that he has now become Jason Bateman, Director, looking to follow in the same career path as Ben Stiller and Ben Affleck (he recently said as much in an interview on Howard Stern). And as a director, Bateman proves to be pretty accomplished. He's clearly surrounded himself with a good crew, including DP Ken Seng doing the best-looking work of his career. He handles the changes in tone well, making a movie that feels like it's all of a piece despite the fact that the script isn't fully a comedy nor fully a drama. It feels like he used the work of Paul Thomas Anderson as a jumping off point (maybe because of the quiz show sequences in Magnolia, or because of Anderson's own motif of fathers and sons), as much of Bad Words feels informed by the artistic choices of that auteur. It's there in the low-angle tracking shots and the solid, Michael Penn-esque score by Rolfe Kent. As influences go, Bateman could do a lot worse.
What's absent from much of the movie's marketing -- even its premise, which sounds like a high-concept Jim Carrey comedy -- is that there is a lot of anger underneath. That's the stuff that works best in Bad Words, perhaps because it's tapping into something honest. While the adult-swears-at-kids stuff feels like a construct, the hostility it masks comes from a real place. It's also what's best about Bateman's performance; he's great at being a smartass, but always hides something darker behind his eyes. Guy is playing a long game, and it's one that goes back much further than the start of the film.