Bateman’s directorial debut misses mark

I have found that cursing when something really, really, really hurts or when something just sucks hugely is highly beneficial. You immediately feel slightly better for whatever reason.

“Bad Words,” on the other hand, left a poor taste in my mouth, like a cup of milk about to turn. The story was underdeveloped and the characters were mediocre. As a star vehicle for Jason Bateman, it was subpar. In short, “Bad Words” lacked the emotional resonance that shouting “f**king d**k” often has.

Guy Trilby, an ill-tempered, filthy-mouthed middle-aged man, competes in a nationally publicized children’s spelling bee, The Golden Quill. Since he never finished eighth grade, Guy can technically still participate. With $50,000 and years of spelling bee training on the line, the parents of the little winners are pissed. They harass the coordinator, Dr. Bernice Deagan (Allison Janney), who dismisses their concerns while secretly plotting against Guy. At Guy’s side is a news reporter, Jenny Widgeon, from “The Click and Scroll,” played unsatisfyingly by Kathryn Hahn. Jenny cannot discern why Guy has entered the competition, and thus, neither can the audience.

The film has an annoying habit of drifting in and out of Guy’s voiceover. His failing as a protagonist is his inability to convey motivations, interests or emotions, so we are forced to enter his interior monologues. These rants are always expositional, making the viewer wish the screenwriter had the foresight to make Guy more chatty. Instead, since Guy hides his feelings, the audience is left in the dark—or at least somewhere else.

The primary attempt to make Guy empathetic comes in the form of a precocious, adorable child named Chaitanya (Rohan Chand). Chaitanya’s father has (oddly) allowed his 11-year-old son to room by himself while competing in The Golden Quill. Since Dr. Deagan has arranged for Guy to sleep in a janitorial closet, Chaitanya’s half-open room allows Guy the things he needs: a bathroom and a minibar. The two competitors form a close and immediate friendship, so the audience can get some glimpse into Guy’s head.

What do we learn? His father left him when he was young. His mother was a waitress. His teachers in school were mean to him. We essentially never learn another thing about Guy’s character, and by the end of the film, we still know very little.

The plot is thin, at best. The majority of the film is a series of quips, not unlike Seth McFarlane’s “Ted,” and feels unlike a movie. Rather, we watch Jason Bateman make profane jokes at every opportunity, making jokes about periods, fat kids, “Slumdog Millionaire” and sex. My fellow audience members had a strange relationship to the middle school style jokes on screen.

At one moment, they would seem startled, whispering, “I can’t believe he just said that.” The next, these same women and men would be snorting into their palms. If you go to see this film, expect a lot of nervous laughter.

The funniest scene in the whole film is when Guy and Chaitanya go out on the town together. The pair go to a bar, steal a lobster, play pranks, eat chili dogs and do donuts in a car. As the boys laugh giddily, audience members cannot help but enjoy the experience with them. The scene then veers into dangerous territory when Guy hires Marzipan, an African American prostitute, to show her nipples to Chaitanya. The uncomfortably eroticized image of an eleven-year-old boy witnessing a grown woman’s naked breasts is awful. Unnecessary? Certainly. Explicit objectification? Yup.

The rest of the film remained, as I mentioned earlier, underdeveloped. The audience realizes late in the game why Guy is on a mission to infiltrate a children’s spelling bee, and the rationale is weak and unrealistic. Guy’s relationship with the reporter, Jenny, is initially rancid. Jenny hates Guy, and he is even less interested in her. The two have sex a few times, but they never exhibit anything more than mild sexual attraction after the interactions. However, at the end of the film, the two are suddenly acting like a couple. There is no arc, or character motivation. Simply, Guy is a better person because he fulfilled his quest, and thus he is suddenly deemed as a good boyfriend.

The female characters are not fleshed out, either. Jenny seems like a sex addict, and for no apparent reason, always looks extremely sloppy. Either her hair is falling all over the place or her clothes are mussed. Plus, Jenny is an awful reporter. She does not realize who Guy’s father is, which is a key element to her story, until it is all too late. She represents nothing in the narrative, besides the vehicle by which Guy can demonstrate his sexual capabilities. Dr. Deagan, who is supposed to be the antagonist, is fired from her position about halfway through the film. Her role is useless. She is unable, in any way, shape or form, to stop Guy from winning the spelling bee. Further, all of the parents turn on her, even though she is not to blame. She loses, repeatedly, for no reason, and poses no real threat.

“Bad Words” could have been worse. But if that’s the only thing to say for Jason Bateman’s directorial debut, maybe it is a sign he should quit while he’s ahead. If this counts as being ahead.

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