The past few years have seen the R-rated comedy rise in popularity with audiences, in acclaim with critics and, most importantly, in dollars at the box office. But while successes like "The Hangover" (the first one only) and "Bridesmaids" are pinnacle examples of using the adults-only rating to raunchy perfection, there are handfuls more that simply think a wacky premise and salty language are the only ingredients you need for comedy. What many of these films don't understand is that without smart context or clever delivery, the punch and power of cursing or even the salaciousness of a well-placed breast doesn't work. And while Jason Bateman's directorial debut "Bad Words" undoubtedly uses a lot of them, few add up to any genuine comedy.
To be certain, the film does mix together those aforementioned elements in hopes of creating something righteously naughty. Right off the bat, we see Guy Trilby (played by Bateman, doing double duty) sporting a military style crew cut and standing amongst a sea of kids waiting to participate in a regional spelling bee championship. It turns out he's using a loophole in the official rules that states no one who has graduated eighth grade can compete. According to his transcript, Guy never made it to high school (though how he winds up at a job proofreading warranty agreements remains unexplained), and thus technically, he can challenge these kids for the crown. Working this quirk in the rule book to his advantage, Guy quickly advances to the Golden Quill, the national finals, where he plans to win, but not particularly for the money or even whatever notorious fame he gets out of this gimmick. He's got an ulterior, much more meaningful motive that is driving his entire enterprise.
With the crazy concept in place, Bateman wastes no time chewing on the meaty f-bombs, salty sexual innuendo and sly ethnic slurs contained in the 2011 Black List script by Andrew Dodge. And the target of his vituperative talk? Anyone who crosses his path. Simply put, Guy is a full blown asshole, seething with anger at the entire world, and getting the brunt of his invective is Jenny (Kathryn Hahn), a reporter who attempts to chronicle his strange story and is also Guy's fuck buddy/quasi-girlfriend. Also in his sights is cute-as-a-button 10-year-old competitor Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), who attempts to forge a genuine friendship with Guy, as not only does he not have any actual friends, he also lacks a father figure as his own often leaves him unattended to help him build personal strength.
And it's once Chaitanya comes into the picture that "Bad Words" becomes a sort of watered down hybrid of "Bad Santa" and "Superbad." And as much as we genuinely appreciate well-placed "fucks," creative descriptions of vaginas as insults and brown people being called Slumdog, if it's not rooted in anything except a desire to be (mildly) provocative, it simply doesn't work. From the start, Guy's actions never follow any established rules for his character. At one moment, he wants the world to fuck off and leave him alone, particularly Jenny (who has the patience of a saint, though any rational person would've bailed long ago) and Chaitanya. But at the next, he's fucking Jenny and more bewilderingly, taking Chaitanya out for a night on the town.
While this montage of their sunset excursion will undoubtedly be a crowd-pleaser, it makes zero narrative sense. Suddenly, Guy is playing Best Uncle Ever, spending the first night of the big tournament out late with Chaitanya, doing shots, pulling pranks, shoplifting and hanging out with prostitutes. And yet by the next day, both are perfectly fine to compete on national television. And even within the competition, it's never clear if Guy—who has never gotten past junior high—is a savant (it's suggested at one point that he has some kind of photographic memory) or a cheater who has been punking his competition. Several sequences see Guy force some of his younger opponents to bail through some juvenile ruses, but why does he need to bother? Much like Chaitanya's night of debauchery, it feels like comedic overcompensation but never gives a sound reasoning behind them.
And this lackadaisical approach winds up undermining the movie as a whole. "Bad Words" wants so desperately to be funny that there isn't much time left to make any logic out of the story. What starts as a revenge tale unconvincingly morphs into a bitter, lonely middle-aged man bonding with a young Indian kid (whose parents don't seem to feel one way or another about this weird man hanging out with their kid alone in a hotel, giving him copies of Maxim magazine). And both story threads wind up being underserved, with Guy's big master plot landing with the impact of a deflated balloon, while his newfound desire to do right by Chaitanya leaves Jenny and other supporting characters (we won't even get into the threadbare subplot involving a underutilized Allison Janney) tossed like afterthoughts under the wheels of a movie that doesn't quite know where it's going.
For his first time behind the camera, Bateman keeps his ambitions low—the movie is mostly set among two different locations, a hotel and spelling bee venue—and shows that he could put together 90 minutes of a story tightly and cohesively. It's just too bad it had to be this material. For an R-rated movie, "Bad Words" takes its edginess for granted, which dooms the movie to being perceived as not trying hard enough. But the movie does try, try and try, and the worst "bad words" we can say about it is that it simply doesn't work. [D]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.