I like Jason Bateman. Specifically, I like Jason Bateman as Michael Bluth on Arrested Development. Based on interviews I’ve seen with Bateman, Bluth doesn’t seem to be too far removed from Bateman’s actual personality, or at least the one that he would like to present himself as in the public eye. He’s arrogant, narcissistic, and self-important, and he’s frankly quite rude about it. The only difference is that Bluth seems to be a self-acknowledgment of Bateman’s faults, for Arrested Development often casts Michael Bluth as be well-meaning, but ultimately just as flawed and hopeless as everyone else on that show. Bad Words is Bateman taken to the other, unapologetic extreme, where Bateman plays a cruel, narcissistic douchebag who at first glance doesn’t evoke much sympathy. This narcissism is accentuated by the fact that Bateman also directed and produced this movie, and as a self-promoting vehicle, this film succeeds somewhat. However, Bateman’s first crack at directing leaves a bit to be desired, and ultimately the film doesn’t quite rise above its formula or faults of internal logic.
Bateman plays Guy Trilby, a forty-year-old man who finds a loophole in a national spelling bee competition and works his way to the finals. Trilby’s motivations aren’t readily apparent, but what is apparent is that he does not give a fuck what anyone thinks of him or his personal quest, cursing and insulting his way past any obstacle that crosses his path. Along the way, he is followed around by a fellow competitor named Chaitanya, age ten. Chaitanya is niceness and innocence taken to Trilby's cartoonish opposite, and the film slaps the two guys together in a fairly typical story about learning life lessons from one another. I can see a lot of people getting upset at the fact that Trilby gets the kid drunk and takes him out for a night of debauchery which includes staring at a prostitute’s breasts, but for the point the film is trying to make about the two characters, I think it works.
However, what doesn’t end up working for a lot of this film are the jokes. The best jokes are the creative insults volleyed by Trilby, but those tend to lose their appeal after Trilby’s obnoxious personality becomes the expected status quo. Without the benefit of shock value, the jokes just meander into being awkward. Otherwise, the jokes either just don’t land as being funny, or are just plain uncomfortable, such as any time sex is brought into the picture. The sex scenes are meant to be painful to watch, but the obvious attempt at comic delivery falls so flat that you can practically hear the crickets chirping.
But most of all, Jason Bateman just doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing in the director’s chair. The film develops a theme by the time the climax rolls around, but some of the characters, primarily Trilby, seem to make decisions that don’t have any logic in relation to their character. I recognize that that’s partially the fault of the screenplay, but Trilby has a change of heart toward the end of the film that could have really been better contextualized. From a technical standpoint, the film also tends to meander into following underdeveloped plot threads that don’t really impact the overall story all that much, and seem to be there merely to pad out the already short ninety minute runtime. Throw in a really lazily edited montage (to a fantastic Beastie Boys song, by the way), and it’s clear that Bateman doesn’t really belong at the head of the production.
There were moments of Bad Words that I enjoyed, but I ultimately didn’t find the experience worth it. Others may disagree, and your enjoyment is primarily going to be based on how much Jason Bateman being an asshole can sustain you. If you think ninety minutes of that will work for you, then this might not be so bad. However, in my personal opinion, Bad Words falls short of the mark.