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With: Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Rohan Chand, Philip Baker Hall, Allison Janney, Ben Falcone, Amanda Anka, Steve Witting, Anjul Nigam
Written by: Andrew Dodge
Directed by: Jason Bateman
MPAA Rating: R for crude and sexual content, language and brief nudity
Running Time: 88
Date: 03/14/2014

Bad Words (2014)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Spelling Without a Cause

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Jason Bateman began as a television star in the 1980s, on shows like "Little House on the Prairie" and "Silver Spoons," and he seemed more destined to become a relic than a movie star. But a role on the groundbreaking "Arrested Development" and a few well-chosen movie roles, most notably in the huge indie hit and Oscar nominee Juno (2007), sent his star rising. Films like Horrible Bosses and Identity Thief have been big hits for him, and now he takes the directorial reins for his newest movie, Bad Words.

It should be noted that Batman has been a director for some time, working in television, and he was also the youngest director ever to join the Director's Guild, at age 18, when he directed episodes of "The Hogan Family." But Bad Words is his big screen debut.

Bad Words is funny, but it unfortunately serves to underline a current subgenre: grumpy, cranky, foul-mouthed, oversexed older men who are redeemed by children. Unluckily, two of these movies also have "bad" in the title, Bad Santa and Bad Grandpa, and both of those seem to understand the balance between naughty and nice better than Bad Words does.

Bateman plays Guy Trilby, a forty-something guy who finds a loophole in the rulebook and joins a national spelling bee meant for children. The actual spelling is no problem for him. Whether he's a genius or has a photographic memory, or both, he seems to know every word under the sun. The real problem is that angry parents don't want him there, and he won't tell anyone what he's actually up to. (It has nothing to do with losing the bee as a child.)

A journalist, Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), follows him around, sometimes sleeps with him (barking "don't look at me!"), and sometimes helps him out of sticky situations with her journalistic clout. Allison Janney plays the snippy director of one bee, and Philip Baker Hall plays Dr. Bowman, the man in charge of it all. Unlike many actors-turned-directors, Bateman doesn't seem interested in getting great performances from these actors; their characters are just as unlikable as Guy is.

But young Rohan Chand -- also in the recent Lone Survivor -- is the real focus, playing Chaitanya Chopra, a front-runner in the bee. Sent to the bee without friends or parents (they're staying in a nicer hotel across town), Chaitanya tries to befriend Guy. At first Guy just insults him, but the boy's persistence leads to nights of debauchery, stealing things, eating bad food, and getting a sneak peak at a hooker's goodies. Sadly, there's a "surprise" betrayal mixed in with the final reveal and showdown, followed by the happy ending.

Guy is indeed bad. He insults everyone and anyone, without regard to race, sex, or creed, and even though this seems to come from a place of pain, it doesn't help. It steps a bit too far over the line, and when the movie asks us to care about him, it just can't pull it together. Also, too much weight is placed upon the Chaitanya character to help settle things, when it should be Guy's responsibility. These are subtle balance issues, and the weight is just a little off.

This is not to say that Bad Words doesn't have its laughs. They're mostly based on shock -- just how bad can Guy be? -- but Bateman is funny enough and charismatic enough that he pulls off a large number of giggles. Maybe next time he'll be able to put them into a stronger story with stronger characters.

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