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With Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Allison Janney, Rohan Chand, Philip Baker Hall. Directed by Jason Bateman. Written by Andrew Dodge. Rated R for crude and sexual content, language and brief nudity. 89 minutes.
People are either going to love or hate BAD WORDS depending on whether they take it literally or not. If you take this as, in a sense, a dirty fairy tale, it is absolutely hilarious. If you take it straight–that the movie wants us to root for the smug, selfish, self-absorbed character played by Jason Bateman–you’re going to have a terrible time. You’re also going to be missing the point.
Never having been much of a fan of Jason Bateman, this reviewer wasn’t sure what to expect of the actor’s debut as a feature film director (the fear was another “Identity Thief”). Instead, this is a movie that is akin to 2003’s “Bad Santa,” in which we slowly come to understand a character we shouldn’t like at all, and enjoy his skewering of the pompous twits around him.
Bateman plays Guy Trilby. When we first meet Guy he has shown up for a regional spelling bee… for children. He has found a loophole in the rules that allows him to compete and is threatening to make life miserable for the sponsors if they violate them. Forced to allow him to compete, they can only hope he quickly loses. Unfortunately for them, even when they try to rig the contest, he doesn’t.
Why he is doing this is a mystery that doesn’t come out until late in the film, so instead we’re forced to go through this adventure alongside this bully, who tries to psyche out the other kids, and gleefully watches as the woman running the program (the always-wonderful Allison Janney) discovers he’s outsmarted her at every turn. Bateman does everything he can to make us dislike Guy, including showing the contemptuous way he treats Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), the reporter who is reporting his story and occasionally having sex with him.
As with “Bad Santa,” it is our anti-hero’s totally inappropriate friendship with a young boy that starts to reveal that the character is more complex than he initially seems. One of the other contestants is Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), a smart, likable kid who seems to have spent his entire life being groomed for the spelling contest. At first Guy rebuffs the offers of friendship, but finally they go on a spree that should get social services called in. When we finally meet Chaitanya’s father, the inkling of the film’s theme begins to emerge.
Bateman directs the proceedings with a sure hand, having twenty years of television directing behind him. (He was not yet twenty when he first got a chance to helm a few episodes of “The Hogan Family.”) He hits all the comic beats without tipping his hand too soon, and takes special delight in letting Janney and Philip Baker Hall (as the person who oversees the event) fuss and fume at length.
The film has been derided as “racist” and “misogynist” in some quarters, which also misses the point. Guy is a misanthrope–he’s bitter with the entire world. His insulting remarks are a way to keep everyone at a distance so that he won’t have to admit how he has been hurt.
“Bad Words” is a laugh-out-loud funny comedy and a chance for Bateman to show he can be more than the nice guy schlemiel he usually plays.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He lives in Somerville, MA.