I like offensive. Offensive can be fine. Cringe comedy, touchy subjects and off color remarks hit places usually protected by polite society. If they annoy you, that’s a good thing. At least they made you think and sometimes, change your perspective. In a sanitized, tidy world, it’s nice to have something new to churn our brain mush, even if it hits an unpleasant nerve.
But there’s a catch. Offensive isn’t enough. It has to be good. Yelling obscenities at a bus of schoolchildren wouldn’t fly in real life but if it’s done on a TV show, there may be some merit. Artists need to be allowed to express themselves however they want. If the quality is lacking, society will give it the cold shoulder and it goes away. Public opinion is a great equalizer.
Why the long winded opening about artistic integrity? I’m trying not to be a hypocrite. Bad Words, a new dark comedy starring and directed by Jason Bateman, doesn’t stink because it’s offensive, mean or ugly. It’s bad because it’s not good. Bad Words attempts to bolster its predictable story, laughable characters and stupid premise by being mean-spirited and shocking for no good reason. And no good reason isn’t enough when you’re this poorly made.
Jason Bateman plays Guy Tribley, a forty-something life drifter who enters the National Quill Spelling Bee as a contestant. Turns out, he never graduated eighth grade and is technically eligible to compete against a field of 12 year olds. As he spells his way through the contest, he’s flanked by a reporter (Kathryn Hahn) and befriends Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), one of his starry eyed, goody-two shoes competitors. Along the way, Guy drinks like a fish, exposes his young pal to all types of bad behavior and plays psyche out mind games with kids a quarter of his age. While the world sees him as an opportunistic ass, he has other reasons for being a man in a child’s game.
Essentially Bad Santa without the cleverness, the problems start with the script, penned by first timer Andrew Dodge. None of the intended comedy is organic to the story or characters. If you’re going to make your lead an aggressively mean-spirited jerk, there needs to be a reason for his rage. While there is some mystery to Twibley’s motivation, once it’s revealed (figured out by the audience), it’s not worth the pain he inflicts on everyone around him. Suffice to say, he could have saved himself some time by attending a few months of therapy.
With everything written around the jokes, the comedy needs to be razor sharp. Despite a couple of admittedly clever slams and insults, very little provides a genuine laugh. Again, you’re reading a review written by a fan of Jackass, so I like childish. Childish can be fine. But a when a middle aged man tricks an eleven year old that his parents are divorcing, just to throw him off his spelling game, it doesn’t work. Especially when the script tells us Twibley is a certified genius. He could have easily won without ruining the life of a pre-teen. The film is full of these needless “shock out” moments.
As the man with the plan, Jason Bateman reads the obscenities in a slick and brutal manner, but the tissue thin characterization never gives him a strong reason to do so. The cast around him does the same and with the exception of Rachael Harris, who plays a comically overwrought mother, the supporters fail to inject any life into the already dead story.
The direction isn’t much better. Bateman’s inexperience is apparent as everything plods along in predictable ways. The shot color is drab, the framing is uninspired and even the mad “boys night out” scene where Guy and Chaitanya create mayhem provides very little fun. It’s all sour, dreary and dull. Mix that with a thoroughly detestable lead ruining the lives of small children for a ridiculous reason and you have the cinematic equivalent of stale milk. At a glance, you can see the potential but the reality is one of pure stink.
The film’s tagline is, “The end justifies the mean”. Sadly, it really doesn’t. Like I mentioned before, Bateman and Dodge can create whatever they want. They can make jokes about eighth graders menstruating, their child leads can drop f-bombs and they retain the right to hammer in as much crude behavior as they can think of. But I have the right to not like it and implore you not to see it. Bad Words is an aggressively unfunny film full of gross characters, seen it before plot points and a mean spirited, ugly core. And remember, I like mean. Mean can be fine. But only if it’s good.
Score: 3 out of 10
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Jersey born and New York bred, Bill Tucker is a writer of short fiction, film reviews and articles across a variety of genres and media. He currently writes a regular movie column entitled “Behind the Cinematic Curtain” for Revolt Daily, contributes to a fashion blog for http://www.pop-market.com and has a number of short stories in various stages of publication. When not writing, he works as an IT Trainer for a fashion software company. He currently hangs his hat in Austin, Texas. Check out more of his work at http://www.thesurrealityproject.com.