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Bad Words

March 21, 2014
Bad Words

Jason Bateman has had a tough go of it recently. I liked Horrible Bosses, but The Change-Up was about normal for Ryan Reynolds, and Identity Thief wasted both his and Melissa McCarthy’s talents.

Was that why he’s taken his first turn in the director’s chair for Bad Words? Whatever the reason, he seems right at home. It’s also a treat that, after so many roles as the last-sane-man, Bateman takes his turn as the cut-up. A dry, sardonic cut-up, but a cut-up nonetheless. And damn if the result isn’t at least as many kinds of funny as it is wrong; just where the balance of a good R-rated comedy needs to be.

The premise is simple: Guy Trilby (Bateman) is a forty-year-old man who never graduated from the eighth grade. He’s clearly not stupid; he’s got a photographic memory, and evidently holds down a job as a copy-editor for technical manuals and such. It’s not clear exactly why — within the story — he never graduated, beyond the fact that he’s never been good at making healthy, emotionally rewarding life choices. But from the movie’s perspective the reason is clear: that’s why he is still, at his age, technically eligible to enter the National Quill Spelling Bee.

Another requirement of the Bee: sponsorship by a nationally-recognized news outlet. Guy gets the interest of Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), a writer for the online news site The Click-and-Scroll, who agrees to sponsor his efforts in exchange for a feature article. That is, she agrees before she realizes what a selfish, tight-lipped jerk he is, but a deal is a deal.

All of this is just the setup to place Guy and Jenny at the Bee — created by a harrumphing old professorial type (Philip Baker Hall) and run by a squinty, technocratic B— of another sort entirely (Allison Janney) — in the first year when it will be televised. And if Guy’s behavior is outlandish to get into the Bee, his behavior at the Bee is worse yet.

There are many characters in R-rated comedies that have no shame; to some extent, no movie like this would exist without at least one. But few of these characters revel in it the way Guy does. He is, at every moment, fully aware of exactly how offensive he is, and he simply does not care. He’s Tyler Durden, but with profanity instead of punches.

To throw Guy into even starker relief, we pair him up with Chaitainya Chopra (Rohan Chand), a sickeningly adorable young moppet whose father makes him fly coach and stay in cheaper lodging alone in order to build character. Will Guy have to tone it down around the kid? whether he has to or not, he won’t.

Sure, the story is kind of flimsy, and the big reveal is pretty easy to see coming. Yes, each scene is a setup to allow Guy to act even worse than he did in the scene before. But when each scene delivers so consistently, pulling out laugh after laugh, you stop caring that you should probably feel awful for more than half of them.

Oh, and if you’re feeling bad for corrupting poor little Rohan Chand, remember that he got his film career started in Jack and Jill. At least this time around the crass comes with at least a touch of class.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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