If ‘Bad Words’ had been released in the early 1990s starring Bill Murray, it probably would have been a big mainstream hit. Twenty years later starring and directed by Jason Bateman, it’s now a small indie that should be a modest success. That’s not the same as saying that it’s bad, just a sign of those times and how they are a changin’.
‘Bad Words’ is a mildly offensive R-rated comedy in which the star acts like a foul-mouthed scallywag before ultimately finding his heart and sending everyone home happy. For some reason, these movies are considered off the Hollywood path these days, which makes no sense to me. I suppose that’s probably why Jason Bateman decided to direct the film himself. He knew it was a crowd pleaser that would sell even if it had to be made outside of the studio system. Well, he was right and does some solid work on both sides of the camera to prove his point. Good for him.
Bateman takes a break from his usual befuddled nice guy act to play a genuine a-hole. He’s a misanthropic gent who has decided for reasons best known to himself (until the third act, of course) to take advantage of a loophole in the spelling bee system and compete as an adult against children. Obviously, he starts winning contests left and right. He not only wins them, but cruelly rips the children apart at every competition.
The hilarious and underrated Kathryn Hahn plays a journalist who follows him around trying to figure out what’s going on, along with the occasional sexual interlude. When Bateman makes it to the finals, he does so against the intense protest of Allison Janney’s spelling bee supervisor, but continues to win through smarts – and also by doing horrible things to his competition. (Example: making a girl think she’s having her first period or handing a boy a pair of panties and asking him to take them back to his mother.) It’s a big clustercuss with plenty of raunchy comedy to hold it all together. Then Bateman meets a young boy (Rohan Chand) who’s also in the competition along with his overbearing parents. They strike up a friendship, and then the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes.
So, it’s pretty standard Scrooge comedy stuff. Thankfully, Bateman as both performer and filmmaker is well aware of the pitfalls and clichés inherent in the genre, and toys with them in clever ways. Bateman’s bad-influence relationship with the boy is of the ‘Bad Santa’ variety and his growth as a character is minimal. Even the inevitable spelling bee championship climax plays out in an unexpectedly twisted manner.
‘Bad Words’ is far from a masterpiece, but Bateman hits all the right raunchy notes well and finds a redemptive ending that’s satisfying without being insulting. It’s a very fun and deceptively sweet little movie, the kind of satisfying comedy that should be expected regularly, but only pops up a few times a year. The project was a smart move for Bateman as it shows off a side of him as a performer that deviates from the persona he’s been trotting out since ‘Arrested Development’, while also proving that he’s got a knack for directing comedy.
Sure, ‘Bad Words’ highlights just how genuinely subversive ‘Bad Santa’ was by providing a cleaned-up pop remix of all of the greatest hits in that cult classic, but then, no one ever said Jason Bateman was subversive. He’s always been a sweet and funny guy who is smarter than he appears at first glance, just like his directorial debut.