Jason Bateman has carved out a magnificent career playing Jason Bateman in comedies such as The Change-Up, Horrible Bosses, Couple’s Retreat, The Switch and – notably – on his legendary small-screen endeavor, Arrested Development. Hire Bateman as an actor and you know exactly what you are going to get. Hire him as a director, and you get twice as much, as evidenced by the wry, judgmental new Bad Words.
This is Bateman at his “Batemaniest,” if you’ll allow me to completely create a new term to fit my needs. The comedian doesn’t exactly lose himself in the role of Guy Trilby, a 40-year-old ball of anger who manipulates a loophole to enter a the national Golden Quill spelling bee. No, Bateman merely tailors the part of Trilby to his already refined sense of humor, which leans toward the mean-spirited (but admittedly funny) quips aimed at the emotional weaknesses of his chosen adversaries.
Bad Words plugs into the same template test-driven by both Bad Santa and Bad Teacher. (If Blockbuster Videos still existed, we’d almost have a whole wall dedicated to this bitter brand of comedy.) Trilby has an axe to grind, so he enters – and dominates – a regional spelling bee in Columbus, Ohio. Regulators – played by Allison Janney and Philip Baker Hall – try to prevent Trilby from competing at the national level. But seeing as how he never graduated from eighth grade, he technically qualifies for the competition… and he’s hellbent on winning.
The “why” is the lone hook that will keep you invested in Bateman’s directorial debut, and he does a solid job of protecting the film’s lone mystery for the duration of the film – distracting us with nasty barbs aimed at adolescent bee competitors while we sit and figure what drives this jerk to excel. As in Teacher and Santa, the lead character is paired with a precocious child to counter-balance the vile dreck that spews from his (or her) mouth, and here Bateman casts a winner. Young Rohan Chand plays bee competitor Chaitanya Chopra, and provides the brightest ray of sunshine opposite Bateman’s gloomy cloud of sarcasm. The duo’s journey to redemption by way of conventional life lessons may be predictable, but their interplay and big-brother interchanges end up being the highlights of Bateman’s simple story.
When all is said and spelled, Bad Words passes the time. It isn’t going to win any competitions. But it shows that, as a director, Bateman has graduated from the shorter episodes of Arrested Development and For Your Love, where he cut his teeth, and can master the timing and rhythms of a longer comedic piece. This calling card could and should earn him future gigs behind the camera, though the next time out, I hope he pushes his lead actor to risk and stretch a little more as a performer… especially if his lead once again happens to be Jason Bateman.
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