In Jason Bateman’s feature directorial debut, the actor – largely known for playing put-upon and quietly suffering everymen – attempts to rough up his own comparatively cuddly image by creating one of the most caustic, evil, rude jerks he can imagine. And while his Guy Trilby, the lead character of Bad Words, is an unflappably prickish, frustratingly unguent ogre who verbally abuses children, adults, and just about anyone who enters his field of vision, it seems that Bateman is unwilling to go the extra few feet to make his antihero a true monster. Guy Trilby is too relatable, too human – too Jason Bateman – to really arise as a singularly evil comic creation. In short, he’s not nearly as delightfully, subversively toxic as Billy Bob Thornton’s aggressively antisocial Willie from 2003’s Bad Santa.
Trilby is a 40-year-old man who has been using a complex set of clerical loopholes to repeatedly enter – and effortlessly win – a string of children’s spelling bees. Technically, since he never graduated the 8th grade, he’s within his rights to do so, although he seems to be intentionally attracting the ire of every parent in the room. Along with him on this strange journey, acting as his embarrassed sponsor, is a feisty reporter named Jenny (Kathryn Hahn), eager to find out what the audience is asking: why is he doing this?
We do eventually learn why he’s doing this, and also why he’s behaving like the world’s biggest asshat, but not before Trilby’s heart is softened by the friendship of a wide-eyed Indian moppet named Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), an eager-to-please and completely innocent spelling bee competitor who seems to have a few whiffs of bad parenting hanging about him, whiffs that are kind of reversed and forgotten about by the film’s end.
Since Bad Words is predicated on the mystery behind Trilby’s behavior, it kind of deflates one we learn the big “why,” and since the shocking insults (seriously, some of them are pretty over-the-edge) and forcefully evil behavior feel more affected than truly wicked, the film entire takes on a smooth, mellow tone, not sharp and pointy enough to be as subversive as its shooting for.
But Bad Words, despite its vague lack of edge, is still strangely disarming. Jason Bateman has, as I have said above, a kind of natural sympathy to him. Even when he’s shoplifting, trolling hookers, cussing, and berating children by claiming to have had affairs with their mothers, Bateman projects a kind of Olympian distance from the proceedings, like he’s in on the joke at which we’re invited to laugh. It’s a careful line to walk: How much do you make your antihero an evil bastard, and how much do you make him sympathetic? Bateman shakily walks the line for most of Bad Words, but ends up falling entirely into the sympathetic pile. There is not that single devastating moment wherein he proves how empty he really is.
Bad Words looks terrific. It takes place in the present, but people are dressed in a variety of muted 1970s brown corduroy jackets and equally nostalgia-evocative floral dresses. The photography is likewise muted, and the film feels overall a bit old-fashioned, lived-in, and even comfortable.
So it’s filthy without being entirely too shocking, and moving without ever being groundbreaking. I think at the end of the day, what it accomplishes can be casually admired and enjoyed.