Because Bad Teacher is a pretty funny movie and Bad Santa a bona fide masterpiece, it seems like movies about “bad” people have been thoroughly done. But given that both films are getting sequels (and Teacher its own television series), maybe my appetite is satiated where mainstream audiences’ are merely whetted, which I suppose is a good enough reason for Bad Words to exist.
Directed by and starring Jason Bateman, the comedy certainly follows in the footsteps of its predecessors, in that it features a protagonist who unleashes his misanthropic worldview upon everyone around him with often-funny vitriol. But Bad Words’ comparative understatedness works against it, offering cruelty without the conviction of the two films that preceded it, and ultimately feeling too featherweight to leave as strong an impression.
Bateman plays Guy Trilby, a bitter, immature adult competing in a children’s spelling bee thanks to a loophole in the official rules. Despite the enmity of his opponents’ parents, not to mention the bee’s officials, he remains undaunted, although he finds his motives being dissected by a reporter named Jenny (Kathryn Hahn) who’s following the story. But after making friends with Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), a kid participating at the behest of his ultra-competitive parents, Guy’s resolve begins to soften, even as Jenny uncovers some information about him that hints at his possible motives for entering the bee.
Playing Guy with frequently hilarious, unvarnished obstinacy, Bateman throws himself into the lead role, maximizing his quick wit and the underlying meanness in roles like Arrested Development’s Michael Bluth, albeit without the sentimentality. By the character’s own admission, Guy is behaving poorly, which in other circumstances might make him unsympathetic. But Bateman keeps the audience on the hook for his motives just long enough to ensure that the story is as intriguing as it is engaging, and best of all manages to resolve his evil little quest with a flameout just cathartic enough to suit his previous behavior without betraying it.
That said, Guy’s takedowns are less inventive and less filthy than those of a full-fledged sociopath – or perhaps more specifically, the characters at the center of Bad Santa and Bad Teacher. His insults of Chaitanya fall squarely into the realm of obvious ethnic punchlines – he calls him “Shawarma” and “Slumdog” at various points – while his antagonism of bee officials, parents and virtually anyone else he encounters never quite cross the line from “totally rude” to gobsmackingly offensive, which might have lent the film a scruffy intensity that elevated it to something more than just a foul-mouthed comedy.
But even if actors like Alison Janney and Philip Baker Hall are underused as scheming, what-I-never types, Chand makes a fairly wonderful on-screen companion for Bateman. That Chand’s wholesome, academic naivete has a few layers underneath it is just on a conceptual really rewarding, but the young actor holds his own against the more experienced performer and provides the film with a human, if not entirely innocent face for the kids against whom Guy’s competing.
Meanwhile, Hahn does great work as a desperately needed interrogator who’s always questioning Guy’s choices, perhaps as audience proxy but certainly as a necessary documentarian of his egregious misdeeds. But the fact that there are reasons, and meaningful ones, for him indulging in this petty act of vengeance eventually becomes an Achilles heel to the rest of the film’s impenetrable cruelty. Because Bad Words does have the heart of a conventional comedy beating beneath its iconoclastic façade – which is ultimately why in spite of all of the superlatives it earns, it’s still maybe not quite worthy of truly being called “bad.”
Bad Words opens today nationwide.