Jason Bateman has been around forever. He was on Little House on the Prairie, if that puts it in perspective. He is an ageless vampire, who not unlike the Highlander, Connor MacLeod, masquerades in different professions as he hides among us, epoch after epoch, observing humanity. So it is somewhat surprising it has taken over a hundred years of motion picture technology to lure him to the director’s folding chair. He has some TV directing credits under his belt, including a legendary episode (“Afternoon Delight”) of arguably the greatest TV show ever, Arrested Development, in which he also starred, but 2014 marks the debut of his first feature film directorial effort, Bad Words.
It’s not going to win any awards, but I have to admit, I had a “Stick to your day job” quip all loaded up, and now I can’t in good faith fire it off. The movie is pretty darn funny.
Bad Words is about a 40-year-old man, Guy Trilby (played by the 4,000-year-old Bateman) who has found a loophole in a national spelling bee’s bylaws allowing him to compete with the regular contestants who are all in elementary school. The movie lets you know early on, through that least of creative mechanisms, a narrator (albeit in an innovative form), that Trilby is full of regret and self-loathing. This stems both from what has come before the current fiasco and what he is doing during it. Then Trilby proceeds to destroy little kids with his superior spelling skills and work his way through the spelling tournament en route to a murky final goal, ostensibly victory.
Here is where the film falls into a very easy and formulaic shock comedy formula: Bateman’s character shocks us with bad behavior before revealing that he’s not such a bad guy. Normally this is where I’d jump in to spread some dirt over the coffin, but even I had to admit it’s well executed. Bateman’s scenes with his spelling rival Chaitanya Chopra, who he takes for, you guessed it, some adult fun and bad word tutelage, are almost sunk by their familiarity, but rise above on the strength of Bateman’s performance and direction.
To unsettle his young rivals, Trilby resorts to trickery and traumatic pranks, and Bateman shines in the role. Sure, he’s just playing Michael Bluth (his character from Arrested Development) on a bender, but that’s sort of what we wanted to see more of on that show anyway.
Make no mistake, this movie borrows liberally from Bad Santa and even Rushmore, two far superior comedies. It blazes almost no new ground at all, but for once, I didn’t really mind.
Also shining in the film is the wonderful Katheryn Hahn, who has been stealing the show in movies like The Goods and Step Brothers and is only now finally becoming a household name. She plays Trilby’s love interest and adds a weird dimension of quirky warmth to the film.
The production is slick, and Bateman’s directing hand assured. And the twist, as all movies have one, is solid in its simplicity, although again, no new ground here. It almost feels like an exercise. Like to prove he’s capable of directing something more complex, he set out to do something very simple.
Mission accomplished. Now on to Teen Wolf 3.
Bad Words is playing at the Carmike 12 theater in Corvallis.
By Ygal Kaufman