Jason Bateman works hard both in front of and behind the camera in the uneven but sporadically funny comedy, Bad Words.

Let it be said that Jason Bateman’s directorial debut Bad Words is not without talent.  In fact, there is quite a lot of talent up on the screen – with music by Rolfe Kent, cinematography by Ken Seng, editing by Tatiana S. Riegel, and starring accomplished actors such as Allison Janney, Philip Baker Hall, and Bateman himself.  But despite a strong pedigree and the best of intentions, Bad Words is a strange hodgepodge of crude humor, Judd Apatow-wannabe sensibilities, quirky indie clichés, and dramatic underpinnings that clash with the film’s irreverent tone.  It so desperately wants to be a biting satire with heart, but instead comes off as an empty exercise with a couple crackling moments of aching belly laughs.  The film’s one saving grace is Bateman, who gives the most well-rounded performance of his career and shows great promise behind the camera despite being let down by an unfocused script.

Bad Words‘s premise is simple, silly, and clever – Bateman stars as Guy Trilby, a middle-aged 8th grade dropout who decides to compete in a national spelling bee with unclear motives.  Kathryn Hahn plays a reporter covering Trilby’s story for an online publication, while being both sexually intrigued and disgusted by him at the same time.  There is also a cute subplot involving Trilby becoming unlikely friends with a lonely young boy with daddy issues who also happens to be competing in the bee.  All of these plot points could have easily coalesced into a cohesive whole with the right screenplay and sense of comedic tone, but the film gets bogged down in the minutia of discovering Trilby’s reason for entering the competition.  It’s a mystery that is dragged out through much of the film’s 89 minute running time and its payoff is undercooked and in complete contrast to the vulgar debauchery that has come before.

The script was written by newcomer Andrew Dodge who perhaps would be better at delivering pitches than writing screenplays.  The ideas in Bad Words are good ones, but the film simply can’t decide what it wants to be.  It doesn’t take its offensive humor far enough to be a satire and its drama is lacking and tacked on to say the least.  Dodge has also underdeveloped almost every character in his story (with the exception perhaps of the outcast boy Chaitanya Chopra, played effectively by Rohan Chand) leaving the audience with little to care about between set-ups and punch lines.  Allison Janney appears briefly as a former spelling bee champion and current headmaster of the bee, but her character is given little more to do than land snarky remarks and plot against Trilby accordingly.  Philip Baker Hall also shows up as the creator of the Spelling Bee and his role is intended to have much larger impact due to a revelation late in the story, but because he is only given fleeting glimpses the reward simply isn’t there.  Even the main character of the story is woefully underwritten and though his reprehensible behavior and racist comments are meant to give him an air of mystery, the gag quickly runs out of steam.  As written, Trilby is a cipher masked as a human being.

Despite his poor development, Jason Bateman is able to bring a lot to the table as Trilby giving him shades of humanity not present in his dialogue.  Bateman uses his everyman appeal to make the character likeable and relatable despite the detestable, and often hilarious, things that come out of his mouth.  His chemistry with Rohan Chand is one of the great highlights of the picture and their inappropriate banter is infectious in its beguiling warmth.  Their best scene together comes when Trilby takes it upon himself to introduce Chaitanya to a lady of the night and some of her…larger attributes.  It’s an exceptionally funny and sweet scene that doesn’t come off too crassly despite its subject matter.

As a director, Bateman is sure-handed in his execution despite a montage sequence that comes off as a stoner-influenced Judd Apatow knock-off. Otherwise, Bateman brings a lot of character to the proceedings. The film zips along and there is rarely a scene that doesn’t have at least one or two big laughs, but it is much too short for what it is trying to accomplish.  Bad Words is enjoyable enough and shows great promise for Bateman’s next directorial outing, but it is undone by an underdeveloped script that can’t decide what kind of picture it wants to be.

Grade: C

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