Friday, March 21, 2014

Bad Words: D-I-S-A-P-P-O-I-N-T-I-N-G

Bad Words (2014) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: R, for relentless profanity and crude language, sexual content and brief nudity

By Derrick Bang

While not the total train wreck that its pleading, seemingly anxious social media publicity campaign might suggest, this little flick also isn’t much to write home about.

An unexpected act of kindness by young Chaitanya (the utterly adorable Rohan Chand)
prompts a smile from the curmudgeonly Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman), who until this
moment hasn't displayed anything close to a sympathetic bone in his nasty body.
Somehow, though, the sight of Guy looking cheerful is even scarier...
First-time scripter Andrew Dodge definitely wants the Bad Santa vibe, and at times he comes close ... but that dark-dark-dark 2003 comedy was an inspired blend of talent (Billy Bob Thornton) and superior material: a perfect marriage that Dodge too frequently fails to consummate with this film’s Jason Bateman, who both stars and makes his big-screen directing debut.

I’ve never understood Bateman’s appeal. As with Paul Rudd — another over-valued and under-talented, so-called comic player — Bateman swans his way through every role with condescending indifference, as if wanting to ensure that we all understand the big favor he’s doing us, merely by appearing on the screen. It’s an irritating affectation, as far removed from actual acting as a singer lip-synched by somebody off-stage.

But I digress.

Goodness knows, it’s long past time to satirize the rarefied, hyper-competitive world of children’s spelling bees. Given that Jeffrey Blitz’s marvelous documentary — Spellbound — came out more than a decade ago, some sort of comedic riff should have followed within a few years. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for waiting, since Bad Words has the good fortune to ride the serendipitous publicity of the jaw-dropping competition at this year’s Jackson County Spelling Bee, held just a few weeks ago, when the event finale had to be postponed after the remaining two contestants went 66 rounds without breaking their stand-off ... because the organizers ran out of words (!).

Bad Words never quite gets the mix right, however. Humiliating children via edgy humor is a dicey prospect, requiring a razor’s-edge awareness that going too far risks alienating one’s audience. Ultimately, Bateman and Dodge don’t skewer spelling bees with near the wit or snarky panache that, say, director Michael Ritchie and scripter Jerry Belson brought to 1975’s Smile, their dead-on assault on teenage beauty pageants.

I’ll say this for Bad Words, though: All concerned don’t waste any time. At an economical 88 minutes, this unsettling comedy never becomes tedious.

Trouble is, it never quite achieves glory, either.

Bateman stars as Guy Trilby, a smug misanthrope introduced as he crashes a regional qualifier for the prestigious Golden Quill National Spelling Bee. Trilby gets away with this scheme by exploiting a hiccup in the official rules; he never completed eighth grade, and therefore remains eligible ... despite being 40.

The bee organizers are aghast; the doting parents of all his youthful competitors are incensed. But Trilby stubbornly sticks to his guns, backing up his loophole with the threat of legal reprisal under the watchful, note-taking eye of reporter Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), tagging along for an in-depth story on the whole imbroglio.

It becomes clear that Guy has a method to his madness; his behavior isn’t sheer caprice. But he remains an irritating closed book to Jenny — and to us — despite her repeated efforts to elicit even minor background detail, let alone the actual reason he has embarked on a campaign soon to make him the most hated man in America.

Because, as it turns out, Guy is no amateur; he has the spelling chops to face down any word thrown in his direction ... and, before this movie is over, we’ll share in some of the most hilariously weird ones ever to have populated the King’s English.

Having aced the first round, Guy winds up in sunny California, site of the Golden Quill itself. This prestigious event is governed by the grandfatherly Dr. Bowman (Philip Baker Hall) and overseen by administrator Bernice Deagan (Allison Janney), both of whom are determined to get Guy tossed. Somehow. By any means necessary.

Starting with his hotel accommodations: a supply closet having neither bathroom facilities nor a minibar.

Trouble is, Guy’s take-no-prisoners attitude makes him impregnable. He simply doesn’t care if he prompts cold stares merely by entering a room, nor does he have a better nature to which one can appeal. And if anybody — say, a disgusted parent — makes the mistake of insulting him, Guy blandly unleashes the equivalent of a verbal thermonuclear bomb.

Gotta give credit where due: His profane, breathtakingly vulgar rejoinders are the stuff of legend.

Guy soon becomes an object of curiosity to one of his competitors: 10-year-old Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), a wide-eyed charmer unfazed by Guy’s rude, crude and belittling behavior. At this point, Dodge’s script exploits the Bad Santa template to the max, with adorable Chaitanya refusing to be bothered by Guy’s boorish manner, just as Thornton couldn’t do anything to shake little Brett Kelly.

And of course we wonder: Where will this narrative go now?

Taken individually, several of this film’s isolated parts work quite well. The developing dynamic between Guy and Chaitanya is a hoot, mostly because Chand is such a precocious scene-stealer. And since Chaitanya is a trusting innocent, we’re simultaneously horrified and tickled by Guy’s various efforts to, ah, “educate” the boy.

Janney is wonderful as the imperious Deagan, injecting icy disapproval into every syllable during her clipped conversations with Guy. Unfortunately — maddeningly! — this role is woefully under-developed, and Janney vanishes from the third act: an artistic mistake so baffling that one wonders if the film’s budget could afford her services only for so many days.

The always enjoyable Hahn skillfully navigates her character’s amusing extremes. On the one hand, Jenny must be credible as an investigate journalist, and Hahn handles that reasonably well. At the same time, Jenny is a sex addict with atrocious taste in men, and her couplings, as this story proceeds, are pretty funny. And loud.

Hall exudes old-world dignity as the Golden Quill’s paterfamilias, and Steve Witting shines as the spelling bee proctor who must feed an increasingly treacherous list of words to the contestants.

As director, Bateman shrewdly borrows the on-screen television graphics traditionally employed to share these words with the audience at home: a savvy touch that both reminds us of what is being satirized, while also allowing us to follow each contestant’s performance, letter by letter.

Unfortunately, the film — as a whole — is much less than the sum of these parts. The blame here falls on Bateman’s shoulders; as the star, he doesn’t anchor the material. He overplays Guy’s stoic camouflage to the point that he remains one-dimensional, even when the script demands a sliver of vulnerability. To all appearances, Bateman simply can’t be bothered; his determined indifference, as an actor, perfectly complements Guy’s caustic apathy, as a character.

We don’t know a thing about Guy’s past — where he came from, what he does for a living — and it’s impossible to imagine what he will do, or where he’ll be, 15 minutes after this story ends. And yes, while the eventual “big reveal” regarding Guy’s motive does grant a sort of closure, it certainly doesn’t explain why he’s so mean to everybody.

That’s the danger of creating a character driven by a “mystery.” Scripters too often write themselves into a corner, and the ultimate answer rarely satisfies expectation.

Ultimately, then, Bad Words will be good on a larkish Friday night, for viewers with minimal expectations. But it won’t even be a footnote in our memories six months from now, and it certainly won’t jump-start Bateman’s directorial career.

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