Bad Words, the directorial debut of star and co-producer Jason Bateman, is a tragic example of an intriguing concept ruined by spectacularly bad execution. The central character, when broadly described, gives the impression that the film’s plot will be engaging and compelling; he’s an intelligent man so deeply wounded by the bad hand he was dealt that he feels nothing but rage, and when a missing piece of his life’s puzzle at long last falls into place, he reacts by making an impulsive and immature decision, in essence giving in to his anger. Unfortunately, the plot is not engaging or compelling. Not even slightly.
It is, in fact, downright repulsive, combining the worst elements of a raunchy comedy with the soppiness of a particularly awkward friendship melodrama. Andrew Dodge’s screenplay should have remained on the industry’s Black List.
The aforementioned character is Guy Trilby (Bateman), a forty-year-old misanthrope who never knew his father, was raised by a less-than-perfect mother, and despite his remarkably high IQ, ultimately dropped out of school before finishing the eighth grade. It’s hastily mentioned that he makes a living as a proofreader, although that doesn’t adequately explain how he’s able to take off the time necessary to do what he does in this movie. You see, he’s an exceptional speller, and his failure to complete the eighth grade allows him to take advantage of a loophole in the rules of a national spelling bee, technically making him eligible to compete. He desperately wants to compete, although it has nothing to do with a love of spelling or a competitive desire to win. This is a personal, petty act of vengeance. Against whom is not revealed until much later on.
Guy’s participation in the spelling bee – which incurs the wrath of not only contest officials, but also of the parents of the appropriately-aged contestants – coincides with his relationship with a ten-year-old Indian boy named Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand). Despite the fact that Guy spews nothing but vulgarities, including racial slurs and a lot of four-letter words, Chaitanya takes absolutely everything he says in stride and insists on being his friend. Indeed, a rather unlikely friendship does form, in part because Guy believes Chaitanya’s father is working him too hard. We in the audience are supposed to find it funny and sweet, but it’s all wrong. Profoundly wrong. So irredeemably wrong that, in real life, Guy would be arrested and convicted for endangerment of a child.
Here’s a list of things they do during a night of “fun.” Guy sneaks Chaitanya into a bar, hiding him beneath a stool and occasionally sneaking him shots of hard liquor, which he willingly drinks down. They’ll make donuts in an abandoned parking lot, and then they’ll play a prank on an unsuspecting driver, with Guy smearing ketchup on Chaitanya’s face to make him look as if he had just been run over. They’ll steal a live lobster from the seafood section of a supermarket and stash it in a toilet of a public restroom – and of course, some poor guy will sit on that very toilet and immediately emerge from the stall screaming, his pants down, the lobster clamped onto his genitals. And then, when Chaitanya states his belief that some women don’t have nipples, Guy will take him into some dangerous back alley and pay a prostitute to flash him.
Following Guy along is web reporter Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), who struggles to put up with his one-word answers, his refusal to delve into his own backstory, and his antisocial behavior. It’s understandable, from a narrative point of view, that she will do her own investigative reporting on the sly. But for the life of me, I cannot explain why it is that she occasionally let’s him have sex with her – and, for that matter, why he would choose her for sex. There’s no narrative reason for this at all, apart from an excuse to make the film even more profane. Equally as inexplicable is the inclusion of Dr. Bernice Deagan (Allison Janney), the administrator for the spelling bee. Her hatred of Guy is abundantly clear – she sees to it, for example, that his hotel accommodations consist of having him sleep in the janitor’s closet – and yet her rapid exit from the story before the final act tells us that she’s not the primary antagonist and therefore serves no purpose.
The tagline reads, “The end justifies the mean.” In other words, the film’s ending redeems all the nasty, uncalled for things that happen up to that point, including the deplorable ways Guy psychs out select preteen contestants of the spelling bee. But that isn’t the case at all. It might seem that way at first, given back to back emotional climaxes that show the faintest glimmers of Guy maturing. The problem is that the final scene, played for comedic effect, crushes any hope we might have had about the content of his character. Most appallingly, it hints at ugly things about the content of Chaitanya’s character, which has been irrevocably changed by being in Guy’s life. I obviously don’t know the people behind Bad Words, but I suspect that, by choosing to take part in its production, they’ve told us very unpleasant things about themselves.
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