Skip to main content

A Review of "Bad Words"

The blurb for people who don't like to read actual criticism:

I had a great time with Bad Words.  It’s one of those rare comedies that is both unabashedly cruel, but grounded in actual sentiment.  A quick peek at Metacritic tells me that I may be on the extreme end of this opinion, but I've never let that stop me before.  Time will tell if Bad Words is as memorable and quotable as other comedies I've loved, but for now I'm happy to give it high marks.

My Rating:  5 / 5

The longer bit for people who like film discussion:

The Bit Wherein I Describe the Plot

In case you didn't click on one of the ubiquitous banner ads for this movie earlier this year, I'll summarize quickly: Bad Words is a dark comedy about a mid-forties genius (Jason Bateman) who enters a national spelling bee intended for pre-teens.

The movie is framed as something of a mystery tale.  A reporter (Kathryn Hahn) is interviewing Bateman and sponsoring his entry into the competition in order to learn more about why he wants to do something so humiliating and mean-spirited.  Bateman refuses to explain his motives, but occasionally gives us a glimpse behind the curtain through voiceover narration.

Along the way, Bateman meets and befriends a young competitor (Rohan Chand), the movie's resident precocious child.  Chand is a bit of a stereotype: an Indian-American nerd who has been pressured into the competition by his cold and business-like father.  But as the movie progresses, you get the sense that Chand is a bit more calculating and devious than he seems, which gives him and Bateman good room to play off of each other.

There are a few subplots, such as the misadventures of the put-upon manager of the bee (Allison Janney) who tries and fails to have Bateman kicked out.  However, Bad Words never steers too far away from its focus on Bateman and Chand's friendship.

An important note about that.  One thing that I think could be challenging about this movie is that Bateman and Chand's relationship truly is a friendship.  Bateman's character never presents himself as a mentor or a role model and the movie never asks him to step into that capacity.  It would have been very easy to have Bateman become Chand's surrogate dad and teach him a valuable lesson about growing up.  He doesn't.

Bad Words decides to do something a little more unique by presenting Bateman as such a miserable and immature shit that he can only truly relate to a 12 year-old.  I find this bittersweet and hilarious, but I could easily see this coming across to others as creepy, depressing, mean, or a combination of all of the above.

The Bit Wherein I Prattle About Dark Comedy

Dark comedy, I think, is the most difficult, but most rewarding genre.  Most people can’t pull it off, but when they do, we end up with some of the finest films in existence.  (See also: A New Leaf, The Big Lebowski, The Ref, etc.)

The challenge is that you walk a fine line between depravity and redemption.  Human beings are capable of both.  An excellent dark comedy knows this and will work hard to create characters with enough depth that they can dip their toes into either spectrum.  Contrast this with dark comedy that is merely “good” and you can clearly see the difference.  Something like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, for example, is a funny show, but for the most part it never rises above simply being “a funny show.”  The characters are too far beyond hope that all you can do is chuckle at their misfortune.  (This isn't meant to be a slam on Sunny; I think it's a solid show, but it has to be taken in small doses.)

Bateman’s protagonist in Bad Words, on the other hand, hits that sweet spot of being a complete dickhead that you know could be better.  You hope that he can grow up, but you aren’t sure if he will.

Interestingly, the dark comedy is unique in that it doesn’t actually have to end with character growth to still be satisfying.  It just has to give you the idea that somebody could grow.  Think about Big Fan or Burn After Reading; the protagonists learn nothing and are doomed to repeat the same mistakes.  Tonally, these movies are not much different than Bad Words even though the narrative takes a different turn.  (Spoiler alert, I guess.)

Bad Words also manages to avoid another trapping of bad dark comedy: thinking that your subject matter is inherently funny.  Here I’m thinking about a movie like Death to Smoochy, which supposes that a children’s TV show star who curses is enough of a joke that you don’t need to do more.  Or maybe a movie like The Boondock Saints that has a couple of “wacky” vigilantes; we’re supposed to laugh because they shoot people while mugging at the camera, but where’s the joke?

You could easily see that happening with this premise.  A guy in his forties competes in a spelling bee designed for children?  That’s outrageous!  Let’s just throw out the script and have a montage of him doing fist-pumps in front of the kids whenever he spells a word correctly!

This movie wisely avoids using its premise as its primary joke(s).  When Bateman interacts with the other competitors (Chand excluded), the movie becomes uncomfortable; when Bateman interacts with anybody else, it becomes hilarious.  The good news is that most of the movie is him specifically not interacting with the other kids.

The Bit Wherein I Wrap Up

I'm impressed that this is Bateman's debut as a director.  It's not that the film is shot in an especially gorgeous or unique way - I'm not much of a shot composition nerd, so I can't get into those details - but the overall product is so singularly constructed that it appears to have come out of his head fully-formed.  I feel like many directorial debuts are meandering or padded; not so with this one, which is short and tightly-constructed.

Although Bateman is not directing it, this film gives me great hope for the upcoming adaptation of This Is Where I Leave You.  TIWILY – another dark comedy – is easily the best book I’ve read in the last couple of years and I can easily see the movie falling apart.  However, with Bateman cast as the lead, I feel more comfortable knowing that he can do the part justice.

Bad Words is not for everyone, but if you enjoy dark comedies, you are pretty much obligated to see it.