Thursday, March 6, 2014

Bad Words review

Is it safe to say there's a lot of good will directed towards Jason Bateman? Can anyone honestly say that they dislike the actor? He seems like such an affable guy and was so great in "Arrested Development" as Michael Bluth - the exasperated son of a family full of over-privileged idiots - that it's hard to be mad at him. He's the perfect "straight man." He's a self-less actor; he always seems willing to let someone else steal scenes from him. He made Will Arnett and David Cross five times funnier on the show. In movies, he's tried to be the same guy: letting Melissa McCarthy, Charlie Day, and Jason Sudeikis be the "funny" ones while he plays the character that keeps it all together.

But Jason Bateman's movie choices have been far from perfect. He's been in many critically-panned comedies over the years; most notably, "Identity Thief" which co-starred the aforementioned McCarthy. With "Bad Words," Jason Bateman's directorial debut, you get the feeling that he feels your pain and wants to make it up to you. "Bad Words" feels like Bateman's earnest attempt at trying to make a good comedy. For the most part, he actually pulls it off pretty well thanks to a tight script, but it's clear that Bateman wanted to direct and star in this movie because he, for once, wants to play the "bad guy." And while there's nothing overtly wrong with his performance, it's a role that doesn't pack as big of a punch as you'd hope.

The premise is simple enough. Jason Bateman plays Guy Trilby, a 40-year-old high school dropout who decides to enter a spelling bee for kids, after finding a loophole which allows him to participate. Of course, his presence in the spelling bee incites the wrath of many parents. Thanks to his photographic memory, Guy wins spelling bee after spelling bee with great ease, which only pisses off these parents further. Throughout the film, Trilby is a mean, foul-mouthed jerk who refuses to befriend anybody until a sweet little Indian boy comes along who manages to soften him up slightly.

Guy Trilby isn't just entering these spelling bees for no reason. He's not a complete sociopath. But we don't find out the real reason why he's doing this until the very end. Too much of the film's 88-minute running time is spent wondering why Guy is doing what he's doing. Once it's revealed what his actual plan is, his actions suddenly seem much more understandable. However, one wonders if withholding this key piece of information for nearly 80 minutes was completely necessary. Does it not hinder the film that Guy Trilby is so single-minded in his actions? His revelation may be... revealing, but I would argue that it doesn't help to make his character seem that much more multi-layered, especially when we don't find out until very late in the game.

Jason Bateman does a solid job with the character, but my problem is that he tries too hard to justify Guy's actions. From the beginning, as he narrates, he assures us that there's a reason for his behavior. And then, sure enough, we find out that reason at the end. While I was charmed by Guy Trilby's crazy, childish antics, I didn't like how long I was forced to be left in the dark about what was wrong with him. Kathryn Hahn plays Jenny Widgeon, a reporter who follows Guy around and tries to get his story straight. At a certain point in the film, she finds out the key piece of information too in one of the few scenes where Guy Trilby is absent. And still, we're left in the dark. The ultimate reveal, while surprising, wasn't worth the 80-minute wait. We don't get enough time to ponder what it all means.

"Bad Words" has a great cast overall. Bateman definitely knows how to properly utilize character actors. He wisely brought in Allison Janney, Philip Baker Hall, and Ben Falcone who are each able to keep up with the darkly-comic tone of the film. Even the little Indian boy, played by Rohan Chand, gives a cute, spirited performance.

While Kathryn Hahn is definitely welcome in any movie she appears in, I was a little disappointed with how her character was handled in the film. We get very little insight as to why she's so nice to Guy's character, other than the fact that she's interested in his story. The film forces the two to have meaningless sex on multiple occasions, which are merely played for cheap laughs. There just doesn't seem to be much of a handle on her character. Guy Trilby just seems unnecessarily mean-spirited at times. Not just mean-spirited, but way too tight-lipped, which prevents Bateman and Hahn from developing any chemistry together. It should have been much more fun to watch Hahn and Bateman go at it than it actually was. And, by the end, Hahn's character seems to just disappear altogether.

Overall, "Bad Words" is really just a conventional comedy in disguise. You have the mean guy who gets softened up by the quirks of a little boy and he winds up growing a heart at the end. Even Hahn's character points out Guy's similarities to The Grinch. "Bad Words" tries to throw you off with its hard-nosed approach. It tries to show off how mean and dark it is by throwing in a slew of R-rated insults. Letting Bateman's character mouth off towards pre-teens can be fun to watch, but really, "Bad Words" unfolds in a way that's pretty predictable. There's just not enough of a bite, too soft of a punch, for the movie to really land on you. There are quite a few humorous moments and it's a likable enough film, but it could have been darker. It could have taken a few more risks. And Bateman could have been a little more fun.

Grade: C+

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