Thursday, September 04, 2014

Bad Words (2013) **

“Bad Words” has almost all of the elements of an interesting story. There's a unique premise. There's a flawed character, and at the end he has changed a little bit. What's missing is the part in between where he faces some crisis and has an epiphany that explains the change in him. The story arc of this film is like a bridge that has collapsed in the middle.

Jason Bateman plays Guy Trilby, a wounded man-child who is nursing some kind of grudge that drives him, at the age of 40, to enter the Spelling Bee circuit. Because he dropped out of school in eighth grade, he technically qualifies for the tournament, so the outraged parents and Bee officials are forced to let him compete. Kathryn Hahn plays a reporter who sponsors Trilby and tries to pry some of his motivations out of him for her story. At the National Bee, Guy is befriended by a big-eyed, adorable, little Indian kid (Rohan Chand), who turns out to be his biggest competition.

Bateman does achieve the feat of being unlikeable in this film, which I wouldn't have thought possible. His Guy is the sort of misanthropic jerk whose antics might be amusing if he weren't directing his slurs and dirty tricks at little kids. The film attempts to capture some of that hilarious one-upmanship that worked so well between Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray in “Rushmore,” but here it falls flat and is ultimately aborted. What we keep waiting for is that moment where Guy is forced to examine himself and change. Instead, Guy simply changes his behavior right at the end. We never know whether this was his plan all along, or if he changed his plan, and why. Ultimately, the characters and the relationships between them are never developed properly, and one wonders if the rest of the movie didn't get lost in some editing accident.

It's a shame, because this film has a great premise and excellent actors. Rohan Chand isn't the most inspiring child actor, but he is serviceable, and really, Jason Bateman and Kathryn Hahn should have been able to carry this film by themselves. I think the fault lies with the director, who, as it happens, is Jason Bateman. This is his first film to direct, and while I enjoy him as an actor, he doesn't show much promise here as an auteur.

2 stars out of 5

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