Silver Screen: Bad Words **
Some people are endlessly entertained by precocious children. It’s the Kids Say the Darndest Things phenomenon, where cuteness and found comedy come together in the asynchrony of a tiny person trying to articulate big ideas.
As comedy physicists have noted, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Thus there’s an antithetical group that finds those same pie-eyed tots being cursed at and berated inherently funny. That’s the core premise of Bad Words, which never tires of the notion of its embittered protagonist hurling nasty epithets at preteens. Screenwriter Andrew Dodge returns to that well again and again as though it could never run dry. The ultimate effect, somewhat ironically, is like that of a child getting a surprised laugh from telling a joke, then repeating that joke with diminishing returns until you feel like cursing at them.
Star Jason Bateman, also making his directorial debut, is a master of precision animosity. As the beleaguered hero of TV’s Arrested Development, he managed to be sympathetic without dulling the sharpness of his character’s barely contained vitriol. He attempts a similar feat here with significantly less success, not because he’s lost his charisma or ace timing, but because the reasoning behind his caustic character is so flimsy.
Bateman’s Guy Trilby is a former child prodigy whose entire adult life is a study in wasted potential. For reasons he refuses to share with his partner in crime, an unconfident internet journalist (Kathryn Hahn) who’s chronicling his exploits, Trilby has decided to seek validation by winning the National Spelling Bee. It’s a contest restricted to children who have not yet entered high school, but Trilby has found a loophole: He never officially graduated the eighth grade and remains a viable contestant.
His success at finagling his way into the competition raises the hackles of Dr. Bernice Deagan (Allison Janney), head of the spelling bee’s governing body, who vows to find a way to disqualify him. Until then, she makes his life as unpleasant as possible, boarding him in the supply closet of a cheap hotel and encouraging the rancor of the other contestants’ angry parents.
Seemingly the only person involved in the bee who doesn’t loathe him is fellow contestant Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), an enthusiastic, optimistic kid who’s an outcast even among the spelling nerds. Chaitanya’s domineering father keeps him holed up in his hotel room studying from a massive binder of spelling words the kid has named Todd, because it’s his only friend.
Bad Words’ emotions are grounded in the unlikely friendship between the guileless, sincere kid and the curmudgeon whose aloof façade is bound to crack by the time the credits role. It’s such a common convention that Trilby openly acknowledges it, insisting Chaitanya won’t be the Cindy Loo who swells his Grinch heart.
The movie’s self-awareness doesn’t stop it from wading into exactly the familiar territory Trilby so readily denies, but as clichés go it’s not the worst. The movie’s best moments do come from mismatched-buddy comedy, when Trilby takes Chaitanya out for some age-inappropriate adventures. Chand is undeniably adorable, and Bateman’s prince smarming act remains potent. The two manage to generate some big, surprising laughs even as they embrace the expected.
But when Chand and Bateman aren’t sharing the screen, the movie drifts. Without Chaitanya’s sweetness to balance it, Trilby’s shtick is too salty. Bateman as a director mistakes meanness for boldness. Tricking an overweight twelve-year-old girl into thinking she just got her first period on national television is too spiteful and underhanded to be funny.
The revelation of Trilby’s big secret is supposed to retroactively explain, if not entirely justify, his misanthropy, but it’s a too-convenient excuse that makes him seem more whiny than righteous. The movie unravels when Trilby’s motives are made clear; it’s a bad piece of writing reminiscent of Jay McInerney’s awful novel-turned-film Bright Lights Big City, where all the narrator’s bad behavior is explained away as an emotional reaction to the death of his mother, which he conveniently doesn’t bring up until the story’s conclusion. (Incidentally, that character was played in the film version by Michael J. Fox, the original Teen Wolf prior to Bateman donning the fur in Teen Wolf II— maybe it’s all a side effect of adolescent lycanthropy.)
Bad Words isn’t terribly kind to its female characters. Women are represented by Janney’s dour matron, Hahn’s sexually overheated and clueless doormat, and a nameless succession of semi-androgynous soccer moms. Then again, it isn’t terribly kind to any of its characters, a few of whom are played by excellent actors— especially Philip Baker Hall and Southern Illinois’s own Ben Falcone— who can do wonderful things with even mediocre material. Characters don’t have to be conventionally likable to ingratiate themselves to audiences, but we’re going to have a difficult time caring about them when their creators seem indifferent at best.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.