Jason Bateman is one of the most likable people in Hollywood. We may not know how he acts in private, but in films, interviews and other public appearances, he comes off as a charming, lovable goof. It’s that considerable charm that pulls him through some of his otherwise lackluster film and television efforts (“Identity Thief” comes to mind). With this, one can’t help but wonder what he was thinking when he agreed to do “Bad Words.” He’s not good at being bad and, with this being his feature length directorial debut, he doesn’t have the directing chops to make up for it. Not since “Bad Teacher” has a central character been so vile, so hurtful, so unnecessarily mean that he manages to kill any goodwill the film may have had otherwise. It’s going to be hard to top this character’s repugnancy this year and it’s almost certainly destined to be one of the worst of the year.
Guy Trilby (Bateman) is a 40 year old man who finds a loophole in the national children’s spelling bee contest that allows him to enter as a contestant. He even has a sponsor, as all participants must, in the form of Jenny (Kathryn Hahn), a journalist for a nationally recognized online publication. She hopes to get to the root of his motivation, but he’s very reserved in that regard. He doesn’t want to reveal why he’s doing what he’s doing, but he has his reasons.
It’s a fairly weak plot with a thin narrative arc and an even thinner emotional one. Guy is unhappy and treats those around him poorly. To put it plainly, he’s a scumbag and it’s nearly impossible to care about him in any way. A good example of his personality comes early in the film when he’s on an airplane. A sweet Indian kid named Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand) starts talking to him, which, of course, is a minor inconvenience to him, so he proceeds to tell the kid to shut his “curry hole” or he’s going to tell the pilot his bag is ticking. While this is one of the more extreme examples of his pervasive boorishness, it nevertheless captures him well.
This wouldn’t be a problem if his actions were explained. More than anything else, this film needed a gradual reveal. Something needed to happen to open this hateful character up and reveal the man within to help the audience feel empathy, but that doesn’t appear to be on its agenda. Despite a tender moment or two, there’s no gradual reveal of Guy’s motivations. Instead, it’s merely said in passing. Without ruining the reveal itself, Jenny, being the journalist she is, figures out his motivation and his primary goal, to which he replies with the equivalent of, “Good job.” There’s no emotion in this scene, nothing to suggest that the man we see isn’t the man he wants to be.
In fact, when it appears he may build some goodwill, he promptly negates it with his puerile antics. Throughout the tournament, he manipulates kids around him into dropping out or otherwise losing, but as soon as he finds out someone has been manipulating him, he has a childish freak out. When the end rolls around, it’s shown that his actions have had zero repercussions and the closure he alludes to, which is the very reason he went on this strange journey, still appears to be out of grasp. He may take what some may consider the high road at a certain junction in the back half of the film, but it doesn’t negate the numerous low road decisions made prior.
It should also be mentioned that “Bad Words” simply isn’t funny. While a chuckle or two here and there may sneak its way out of some, the vileness of the character always serves as a reminder that the person you’re watching is more worthy of pity than laughs. Guy is a sad excuse for a man and an even sadder excuse for a character that we’re supposedly meant to root for. “Bad Words” is one of the most hateful, mean spirited comedies in recent memory and has close to zero redeeming factors.
Bad Words receives 0.5/5