Bad Words represents a brace of firsts for Jason Bateman. It’s his directorial debut, and it’s also the first time since his rise to the wider consciousness on Arrested Development that he’s definitely not played the straight man. Thanks to the likes of Horrible Bosses, Identity Thief, Paul, Hancock and Juno, we’re used to Bateman being the supposedly stern, put-upon, mature figure, essentially playing variations on Michael Bluth. But as bitter man-child protagonist Guy Trilby, he finally lets rip.
Alas, Bad Words is only a moderate success. Bateman is a competent director, making up for a lack of flair with a good understanding of what works best visually and a nice translation of his on-screen comic timing (although everything seems to be doused in that awful green wash so common in upper-level indie flicks). The real key component of the film is first time writer Andrew Dodge’s slight-but-solid script, which sees the middle-aged Trilby exploiting a loophole in the rules of a National Spelling Bee so that he can compete and win, against a bunch of pre-teens. Black comedy and unsuspecting kids together are a winning formula for comedy gold, aided by Bateman dropping F-bombs across the board. Trilby is obviously a terrible, warped human being, but Bateman has so much fun with with it and is so acerbic that you can’t help but root for his character. It helps that there’s an adorable comic foil in fellow competitor Chaitanya Chopra (Homeland’s Rohan Chand), who helps balance out Trilby’s nihilism with some wonderful childlike pep.
The thing is, if the pitch black comedy was dialled down even just a notch or two, Bad Words would essentially just be a rather trad “daddy issues” indie drama, almost like something Zach Braff would make. That freudian excuse behind Trilby’s actions is so anodyne that it can be guessed the second it’s brought up, and it’s brought up a whole hell of a lot. Constantly dangled like the proverbial carrot in front of us by the reporter (Kathryn Hahn) sponsoring Trilby’s exploits in exchange for the scoop, Trilby repeatedly refuses to tell her, for no real reason other than because the screenplay says it’s not time to reveal it. Everything ticks along just too neatly to match the supposed unpredictability of its main character. There was definitely potential for a truly great film about coming-of-age a bit too late here, but instead, Bad Words will have to serve as a mild beginning to Bateman’s career behind the camera.