The poster for Bad Words look almost austere: muted tones, calming white Helvetica title, Jason Bateman’s name, centered and high, with just a pinch of kerning. His mouth is the only image on display, curled as if about to spit or say a four-letter word. It could be the latest cinematic retelling of Jane Austen (“See You Next Tuesday: A Modern Emma” starring Lea Michele and Jason Bateman). It is the mass market equivalent of artsy and edgy. It is the graphic design of so many recent movies destined to litter the dollar bins at your local Walmart.
It is, in fact, Bad Words, the directorial debut of Jason Bateman, who also stars as Guy Trilby, who plans on using his photographic memory to destroy the dreams of children everywhere, like a less fashionable Grinch—much like Bad Santa before him—on his evil march to the national spelling bee, to be televised for the first time ever.
I’m sure you can guess that, no spoilers here, Bad Words is filled with bad words. Because Guy isn’t a nice guy. Like, at all. He is a racist, homophobic, xenophobic antihero. Thankfully, women and fats aren’t so much in his crosshairs, unless he’s thinking in terms of a Venn diagram, and the woman at point blank range is a hefty, gay, Asian lesbian—good thing Allison Janney and Kathryn Hahn aren’t any of those things! No one escapes unscathed here, though.
Janney and Hahn lend the entire movie a certain gracefulness that only comes from a genuine soft touch for comedy. They’re the round pegs on Bateman’s board game full of squares. Everything has to be hammered into place; there are no easy landings here. In other words, Bad Words is in desperate need of lube. It comes during the climax, of course, and like rough sex, it’s too little and too late. Mind you, that’s not always the case with rough sex, and I think Kathryn Hahn’s character would agree.
Make-Believe Americana is always a story about redemption; of course Guy isn’t the real villain in this world. Saying more would amount to spoilers, and I don’t want to ruin this journey for anyone. Guy isn’t a bad guy; he’s just the latest wounded, broken man in our national, post-recession consciousness.
Bad Words feels like a companion piece to Identity Thief, where Bateman played the straight man (always the straight man—the boring, heterosexual, friendly-to-a-point everyman is Bateman’s favorite flavor) to Melissa McCarthy’s raucous lead. This movie is the little sibling in that coupling because McCarthy is capable of rendering a kind of raw emotion that Bateman can’t foster.
Like the poster’s graphic design, the movie was born fully formed to exist in Walmart stores all around the country. That’s not a bad thing, mind you; in a pinch, even cheap lube gets the job done.
Bad Words opens in limited release on March 14th.