Plenty of comedies have attempted to walk the line between crass and hilarious. But the difference between those that succeed and those that don’t, like Jason Bateman’s feature directorial debut, Bad Words, is finding the right balance between tactless material and jokes that have a wide appeal.
Bateman takes the lead in the film as Guy Trilby, a 40-something man who finds a loophole in the bylaws of the Golden Quills spelling bee that allows him to compete against school-age kids.
The profane parts aren’t laugh-out-loud funny, and the lack of any true human emotion keeps the audience from connecting with the characters.
Trilby travels from bee to bee on the dime of Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), a writer for The Click and Scroll, a website sponsoring him in return for an exclusive on why he’s doing what he’s doing. Along the way he becomes the unwitting companion of Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), one of the much, much younger contestants.
The reason behind his scheme remains a mystery until the end of the film. For the most part, it seems like an excuse to pair Trilby with Chopra and see how much Trilby is able to corrupt him by the end of the film.
And what corruption there is: In addition to the stream of profanity Trilby levels at Chopra, including unprintable racist slurs, he introduces him to a variety of adult activities that the 10-year-old shouldn’t experience for another eight years or so.
Naturally, this is all supposed to be really funny, and to the credit of Bateman and writer Andrew Dodge, some of it actually is. But the further we get into the film, the harder it gets to swallow Trilby’s act as he offers almost no redeeming qualities whatsoever.
Most of the problem is that the film offers no background on Trilby, either on what his life was like before this insanity or how he’s able to pull off the stunt on a sub-eighth-grade education. The ultimate reveal behind his motive is not that great, so giving the audience a hint of Trilby’s life would’ve helped humanize him.
Ultimately, the profane parts are not so outlandish that they’re laugh-out-loud funny, and the lack of any true human emotion keeps the audience from connecting with any character save for Chopra.
It’s easy to see why Chand was cast; his infectious smile and demeanor stand in stark contrast to the constant spew of negativity coming from Trilby. It’s Chand who keeps the film going long past where it should have stopped being funny.
Bateman isn’t bad, but the character of Trilby does him no favors. His time on Arrested Development and other “nice guy” roles make it difficult to accept him in a part like this, but it’s the lines, not the performance, that doom him here.
Bad Words contains a few flourishes that show that Bateman has some promise as a director, but the film as a whole could have used a lot more polishing.