Wednesday, March 12, 2014

BAD WORDS: Jason Bateman & Andrew Dodge's deft/funny take on revenge and the spelling bee

What a continuing and unfolding 33-year-and-counting career belongs to Jason Bateman! The actor, shown at right, who began that career mostly doing TV work, graduated to movies and now divides his time between them, while expanding into production and -- with his latest film BAD WORDS -- film direction, too. Because he so often plays the more-or-less straight man to the "star" (from Will Smith in Hancock, in which Bateman's character became the heart of the movie, to Melissa McCarthy in Identity Thief for whom the actor made a perfect foil, allowing the comedienne to seem all the funnier, just as Sandra Bullock did for McCarthy in The Heat), Bateman consistently keeps things real, thus allowing his co-stars to go over-the-top without toppling the particular movie (or TV show: see Arrested Development).

Bad Words is an especially auspicious directorial debut, I think, because Mr. Bateman shows such a deft hand in delivering laughs that often come from awfully nasty places yet manage not to alienate us. This movie is not, I should add, some over-the-top schlock-fest of bad behavior like the Hangover series. Instead those nasty laughs are also witty and pointed, even if their inappropriateness rather takes our breath away. Bateman's deft handiwork continues into the fine perfor-mances he coaxes from each cast member, including himself.

The story here has to do with an adult male named Guy Trilby played by Bateman, who, due to a loophole in a national spelling bee competition, is able to compete along with the usual kids. Why he would want to do such a thing is the mystery that fuels much of the movie. How he does it provides the many laughs that regularly dot this fleet and sour 88-minute comedy. (The very name Trilby may push the Svengali button in some of us older viewers, but in this case, Bateman's character is a Trilby and Svengali rolled into one.)

Along for the ride (because Trilby needs her journalistic bona fides, and she needs his "boner" fides, so to speak) is a young woman named Jenny, who has quite the atypical relationship with her subject. Jenny is played by Kathryn Hahn (above and recently of Afternoon Delight), and she's a delight all over again here). Jenny and Guy match each other super-quirk for super-quirk.

The kids are differentiated only so far as they need to be, with the exception of one singular contestant, a boy named Chaitanya, played with near-amazing focus and belief by Rohan Chand (above). The relationship that forms between Guy and Chaitanya is yet another surprising, funny-by-way-of-shocking development that ought to raise our eyebrows but instead keeps tickling our funny bone.

How do Bateman and the talented first-time screenwriter of Bad Words, Andrew Dodge (shown at right), manage to have their cake and eat it, too -- creating such a nasty character who does awful stuff yet still holds us through to the the conclusion. Part of the reason, I think, has to do with the very idea of the modern spelling bee and what it has come to stand for -- so far as pushy, insistent parents and pompously ugly administrators of the bee are concerned. Bateman and Dodge never overtly state this, but the way the film unfolds, you can't help but root for someone to take the whole thing down. It's a part of American culture (and perhaps that of the larger western-world) that needs a good lickin'. Which it gets.

Bateman is on record as saying that, while the movie is, yes, kind of filthy, it still has a feel-good finale. While this is true, one reason the finale works so well is that the filmmakers don't push that feel-good one tiny bit. Something happens, yes. And someone is brought up short. But that's it. The movie doesn't dwell. And so we can exit the theater laughing still, with the reason for the dirty deeds and the crassness managing to temper these without giving in to abject sentimentality. This makes for quite the graceful resolution.

In the crack supporting cast are Allison Janney, Philip Baker Hall (below) and Beth Grant, as three of those above-mentioned administrators, and each does her/his thing with the usual aplomb. As indies go, Bad Words, I suspect, is going to be a boffo hit, reaching well into that coveted mainstream audience and delivering a welcome wallop -- as well as a very good time at the movies.

After hitting the Toronto and SxSW fests, Bad Words -- from Focus Features -- has its theatrical debut in New York City this Friday, March 14, at the AMC Lincoln Square, AMC Village 7 and Regal's E-Walk. In Los Angeles, the film, also opening this Friday, will play the Pacific Arclight, Hollywood; The Landmark, West L.A.; and the AMC Century City. Look for a national expansion to all major cities in the weeks to come.

No comments: