Bad Words (2015)
★ / ★★★★
Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) is determined to participate on The Golden Quill National Spelling Bee, a competition for kids, despite already being forty years of age. A silly loophole in the rulebook is a loophole nonetheless and so the people in charge have no choice but to allow him to compete in spite of very angry parents.
Written by Andrew Dodge and directed by Jason Bateman, “Bad Words” is neither as edgy as it premises itself to be nor is it raucously funny that it becomes easy to overlook its shortcomings. Its screenplay is underwritten, its characters are underdeveloped, and its sense of humor is so one-note that it becomes tedious to sit through eventually.
No writer should ever assume that just because his or her main character curses like sailor in front of children does not mean that the subject is inherently funny. Here, while Guy is supposed to be a first-class jerk, he is not interesting enough to warrant our sympathy—which makes the final ten to fifteen minutes especially cheesy and embarrassing. One of the biggest clichés—one of which the film never recovers from—is a jerk on the outside turning out to be not so bad when it comes down to the wire.
Because Guy’s motivation to compete goes unmentioned for so long—and unexplored throughout—we end up not caring so much. Instead, the minutes are padded with fillers such as montages of Guy and a ten-year-old competitor, Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), hanging out or Guy and a reporter (Kathryn Hahn) supposedly not liking each other but almost always ending up in bed. None of these scenes make us want to know Guy on a deeper level despite him being unlikable.
There are only a few very funny scenes. During the early rounds of the spelling bee, Guy is shown sabotaging the kids who end up sitting to his left. The mind games he executes are so cruel but I found myself laughing. Why couldn’t the rest of the picture function on a consistent darkly comic level? Why must the writer feel as though he needed to soften the blows when the story is clearly at its peak, when its sense of humor is rough around the edges? The movie wanting to be liked is the antithesis of the protagonist’s attitude to everyone around him. Is it supposed to be ironic?
Actors like Allison Janney and Philip Baker Hall are given nothing worthy to work with. It is always distracting when one can tell that the performer is trying the best she can to elevate the material and yet still being unsuccessful at it. Janney and Hall are so good at what they do. Why not give them material that is challenging for them and fruitful for us?
“Bad Words” is a fake black comedy—or one that completely fails as one. Movies like Terry Zwigoff’s “Bad Santa,” Todd Solondz’ “Happiness,” and even Marcos Siega’s “Pretty Persuasion” shine because they need not compromise their characters’ motivations. They are written to see things through without the need to be liked. We may or may not like them as people but it cannot be denied that we are fascinated with them as specimens. Black comedies, like the best dramas, are about a specific human condition.