Bad Words first caught my attention at the start of the year with the release of a hilariously offensive and vulgar red band trailer, and since then I have been waiting patiently for some kind of distribution and release to commence. The film, a comedy portraying a forty year old man who embarks on a journey to win an eighth grade national spelling bee, marks a leading role and debut directorial debut for Jason Bateman. Given the subject matter of the picture, I went in with the hopes of being entertained by dialogue rather than the gross out or mediocre slap stick comedy that has been so prevalent in recent times, and being a fan of Bateman I felt at ease in familiar hands.
Able to compete in youth spelling tournaments due to a loop hole of never actually having graduated past sixth grade, Guy Trilby (Bateman) is a sharp tongued, over opinionated middle aged man who at the beginning of the film quits his job as a proofreader and begins the task of competing in a series of competitions in order to get to the national final and win the trophy. Accompanied by Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), an online journalist covering Guy’s story, one of the key plot points within the narrative concerns the mystery surrounding the actual motive and reasoning behind Guy’s sudden unwanted involvement in the world of juvenile spelling bees. The problem with this is the fact that the ongoing thread and eventual climactic reveal of the character’s intentions are not, to be brutally honest, very interesting or engaging at all. However, I found as I was watching and then when contemplating my thoughts afterward, that none of that really mattered. The film’s real enjoyment and cinematic pleasure is provided for the audience by Jason Bateman and the onscreen relationship and chemistry he has with his young co-star Rohan Chand. Chand plays child spelling prodigy Chaitanya Chopra, a peculiar but well meaning seventh grader who befriends Guy and turns the narrative in to a bizarre yet utterly entertaining buddy film with a thirty year age gap. The two ‘men’ bring out sides of each other that help to round out their characters, with Chaitanya teaching Guy the value of friendship and being treated in return to a ten second look at a prostitute’s breasts after voicing the youthful opinion that not all women have nipples. That incident marks merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of fun and frolic that the two unlikely pals experience throughout the plot, and deep down everybody knows that seeing a small child swear like a sailor is a universally humorous act to observe. Whilst the intricacies of the overall narrative may not engage the audience as much as the filmmakers would have hoped, the laugh out loud dialogue and immensely enjoyable partnership between the film’s two lead actors is more than enough to make up for it.
As previously stated, the film’s crowning glory is the hilariously entertaining partnership between Jason Bateman and Chaitanya Chopra. Bateman is clearly comfortable combining acting with his own direction, giving one of his funniest and most assured performances in recent times. There is a fine art to the intricacy of cussing, and Bateman’s delivery of the colourful language that the film hinges the majority of its humour on remains hilarious throughout rather than exploitative. Chopra too takes the profanity in his stride and remains a wonderfully vibrant on screen presence from the first to last minute. Not for one second does the young actor let the experience of his adult co-stars overwhelm him, rather the opposite in fact as he manages to steal a number of scenes away from Bateman in their numerous sparring sessions. Kathryn Hahn, who so impressed me in the recent Afternoon Delight, is enjoyable enough as journalist Jenny, though the character does suffer from being involved in the side of the story that is less humorous and engaging. The most high profile supporting role is the character of Bernice Deagan, spelling bee organiser and played by Allison Janney. Bernice is the stereotypical ‘fun spoiler’ of the piece, placing obstacle after obstacle in Guy’s way without any major success, and though Janney’s exceptional comedic talent is utterly wasted when required to play a straight role as she does here, it is nevertheless always nice to see her in these quirky supporting parts that seem have become the trademark of her cinematic work.
Overall, Bad Words is a consistently funny and enjoyable comedy that, whilst only doing a few things, does them extremely well and executes the crucial dialogue perfectly and with just the right amount of shock factor to avoid being labelled the wrong side of offensive or exploitative. An impressive, well paced directorial debut from Jason Bateman who obviously wanted to keep his first feature tight and to the point at just eighty nine minutes long, something any of filmmakers could learn from in these days of three hour plus long films with more baggy parts that MC Hammer. Not a film to last through the ages, but a thoroughly entertaining experience for fans of dark comedy and imaginative swear words.