Bad Words Directed by: Jason Bateman Cast: Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Rohan Chand, Allison Janney Running Time: 1 hr 28 mins Rating: R Release Date: March 21, 2014 (Chicago)
PLOT: Carrying a mysterious motive, a 40-year-old man (Bateman) legally weasels into a nationwide spelling bee for kids.
WHO'S IT FOR? Sure, this is a different side of Bateman than we may be used to, but that doesn't mean it's funnier.
Bateman uses a fairly fast mouth and an authoritarian command to have some fun with his character, one that does work as a play against his image, but still feels like a nice guy's version of a jerk. The qualities that make Guy so unlikable are made to be so obvious, that even as a desperate character his creation seems desperate. This creates a bad domino effect with much of the film's humor, as Bateman, Bateman's character, and the story, are trying too hard with their stale sense of naughtiness.
Bateman's skills as a director show through how he handles a supporting cast, which is not with much flair. Hahn, a malleable presence who can do great work even in the worst of stories (she gives a soul to Win a Date with Tad Hamilton), plays yet another externally uninteresting woman with an unhinged sex drive (as in Step Brothers or We're the Millers). Allison Janney, playing an administrator who makes it her personal mission to have Guy somehow fairly disqualified from the national spelling bee, is completely wasted, showing that anyone can cast Janney in a project, but only directors with a full grasp know how to get the best from her. And Chand, whose wide-eyes can be seen in the "Charlie Brown" specials he could do voice-work for, is a strong symbol of the sappiness at the edge of this supposedly rebellious story.
Looming over Bad Words is the potential it could have had, as is, were it released ten years ago. With its focus of R-rated behavior poking at the projected innocence of children, along with the couple of chromosomes that keep Bateman's Trilby from being a Vince Vaughn character, this movie is certainly a product of the comedies that have sculpted out the manchild story in the past decade. While the arrested development comedies of Todd Phillips and Judd Apatow have some influence on Bateman's stepping-out as a director, its inspiration is much too late. For whatever could be cleverly shocking about a man telling a boy he'll "slaughter him like a sacred cow", has been exhausted. It's not that we've become more PC, it's that being non-PC has lost its sharpness.
Bateman's most dynamic visual choice as a director is an allegiance to the color green, in the same manner that Frances Ha and Nebraska made specific choices to use black & white. As with those films and others in our multi-colored world, the effect created is that of a human story, but one within a movie universe much more than our own. This very specific visual tone by Bateman doesn't protect his other choices in the movie regarding its mushy center, or the many contrivances within Guys' shenanigans (how can someone keep talking to other spellers during the competition?).
Spelling bees are rife environments for dark humor, especially considering the corrosive nerves experienced by fragile young individuals as they are asked to spell words no one has used in a hundred years. Bateman has this golden concept, but takes the less offensive route.
FINAL SCORE: 4/10