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Bad Words (2013)

Awesome. A-W-E-S-O-M...E

Hold tight, everybody: 2014's first great comedy is just around the corner. For months, film fiends have endured everything from snowstorms and flash-freezes to wildfires and droughts, just to plop down in a theatre for some new-release entertainment. But between Taken 2.5, the unofficial Volcano prequel, and Branded Play: The Movie, there's been little to satisfy those of us who hunger for unsafe material that tickles the darkest and smartest parts of our brains. Luckily, Bad Words opens in two weeks, and this is an early review.*

First-time feature director and star Jason Bateman plays Guy Trilby, a grumpy, forty-year-old jerk whose newfound purpose in life is winning a national spelling bee--for elementary school kids. The former warranty proofreader has deeper reasons for his journey than simply pissing off legions of beleaguered parents, but Guy's horrifically smarmy, racist, sexist, know-it-all demeanor makes it tough to care about what they are. Worse yet, he's an undefeated master wordsmith, a certifiable genius who cheats not because he has to, but to ensure that his grand plan goes off without a hitch.

Of course, there are hitches. One takes the form of Jenny (Kathryn Hahn), a reporter for an on-line newspaper with interpersonal issues of her own. She follows Guy across the country for what would be a juicy story--if this larger-than-life nut wasn't impossible to crack. It's unclear how much of her doggedness is due to journalistic drive, low self-esteem, or the fact that she just plain likes Guy for some really inexplicable reason. The truth ends up being messy, mostly unstated, and a refreshing combination of all of the above.

Guy's main obstacle, though, is Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), a wide-eyed, super-friendly ten-year-old kid who attaches himself and never lets go--despite the string of threats, insults, and expletives spewed right in his face. He represents not only a challenge to Guy's focus, but also to his victory, as contestants drop like flies around them. I'll leave it to you to discover how this relationship evolves as the televised final round grows closer. Suffice it to say, you've seen the twists before, but first-time screenwriter Andrew Dodge arms his characters with a resourcefulness and apathy to adversity that allows them to return low blows with atomic ferocity.

Bad Words will not be for everyone. Though the audience seemed to have a really good time at the screening I attended (I saw no walk-outs) I can't recall the last time I heard so many incredulous gasps from so many people during one film. Dodge and Bateman make Guy absolutely irredeemable at every turn, from plying a kid with liquor and making him into a master thief and vandal,, helping him discover girls.** In many ways, I was reminded of Terry Zwigoff's Bad Santa, which dealt with similar themes and featured a slimy yet compelling protagonist. If you had problems with that movie's offensive, edgy darkness, you may want to steer clear of Bad Words--which makes Billy Bob Thornton's drunken hijinks look like a prime-time-sitcom romp in comparison.

As a debut feature director, Bateman hits Bad Words out of the park. Working with cinematographer Ken Seng and editor Tatiana S. Riegel, he gives the film a terrific style that's literally and figuratively filtered through a shade of poisoned darkness. Something's kind of "off" about the visuals here, intentionally so: to look at him, Guy Trilby is a relaxed, attractive, everyman who would blend in at any Starbucks line--but we can only glimpse him through the black cloud of resentment misting from his pores. And, yes, we eventually find a wounded, gooey center beneath the muck, but the filmmakers never let us forget the devilish glee on Bateman's face--a welcome and disturbing sight on an actor who's been stuck in Wry-Straight-Man-Observer Mode since, I'll say, Teen Wolf Too.

Bateman's the main draw, of course, but his supporting cast is equally as twisted and phenomenal. Hahn's character could have easily been a doormat, but she has just as many moments of triumph as buffoonery--which places her right on par with her chauvinistic traveling companion. Chand is a remarkable child actor, playing inquisitive and bright, without the distracting precociousness one might expect to see in such a role. He's also just a plain cute kid, and there's something so charming about the way he's captured on film. It's easy to see how Chaitanya could so thoroughly complicate even a dyed-in-the-wool asshole like Guy.

I also enjoyed seeing Allison Janney, Ben Falcone, and the venerable Philip Baker Hall kill their parts with deceptive ease (it's no small feat to make cartoon characters and archetypes feel like flesh-and-blood people). But the real stand-out is Steve Witting, who plays the constantly disrespected spelling-bee proctor. His is a small role, but an important one to the main plot, and it's nice to see a seasoned character actor get a fun moment to shine.

Some will write off Bad Words as the latest attempt to capitalize on the the Seth MacFarlane comedy zeitgeist--where a sitcom premise becomes bankable through star power and extremely offensive language. But Bateman and Dodge take that idea a step further, sprinkling their non-PC pie with bits of humanity (or at least reality). When Guy Trilby finally achieves his goal, he comes face to face with the driving force behind what has been a revenge mission all along. Instead of going big or going violent, the filmmakers offer up one last gasp-worthy surprise in a single, multifaceted facial expression. The loudmouth Guy Trilby realizes, at long last, that sometimes there are no words.

*Though it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, Bad Words will see a limited theatrical release here in the U.S., beginning March 21st.

**During the post-screening Q&A, someone asked the director if he'd had any difficulty getting such a young actor to perform such adult material. He said, essentially, that all the people they auditioned were game before they walked in the room--so at least we can't (officially) blame Hollywood for corrupting little Rohan's innocence.