Jason Bateman is a veteran character actor, familiar to audiences for his work on television’s “Arrested Development,” playing Michael Bluth, straight man to a cast of eccentrics. Bateman attributes much of his success to how he approached that role, saying, “It was a show the industry watched, as opposed to America. The people who hand out jobs watched it.”
And Bateman has been handed a lot of jobs since “Arrested Development.”
To be accurate, young Jason was acting long before that, starting at the age of 12 in 1981 with a recurring role on “Little House on the Prairie,” as well as with roles as varied as some on “Silver Spoons,” “Knight Rider” and “The Hogan Family.”
It was the latter series that gave him his first directorial experience at the age of 18, making him the youngest director in Directors’ Guild history and, also, allowing him to follow in his father’s footsteps. (His father was a director, actor and writer.) Jason’s older sister, Justine, was a regular on the Michael J. Fox sit-com “Family Ties” and he has been married (since 2001) to one of Paul Anka’s daughters, Amanda, (with whom he has two daughters). She plays the role of the National Public Television narrator in the film.
In “Bad Words,” Jason has the opportunity to return to directing. His work is informed by such dead-pan black comedies as “Being John Malkovich” and “King of Comedy.” Bateman told Michael Phillips of the Chicago “Tribune,” “The comedy I’m most drawn to is a little tougher to market. Even though I’ve been involved with some high concept studio fare (think “Juno,” “Identity Thief,” and “Horrible Bosses”), I’m drawn to something a little more tamped down. A film like ‘Being John Malkovich,’ there’s no pie in the face. We used that one as a tonal example—a tonal and aesthetic example…I knew that because we weren’t spending a lot of money we wouldn’t be asked to wink a lot or to rewrite the script so there’d be some big set pieces they could cut a trailer with. I didn’t want them thinking we’d even have a shot at recouping on the first weekend, because the movie looked glossy or super-commercial.” So, right away, the theater-goer should realize that they’re in for a quirky sort of comedic turn, like Billy Bob Thornton’s “Bad Santa.”
The super-funny “Bad Words” features Bateman as a 40-year-old malcontent who never graduated from 8th grade and has spent the past 40 years “making bad decisions” and proofreading warranties for a living. A lot of his problems stem from childhood issues originating with his father. He has now found a loophole for entry into The Golden Quill Spelling Bee that will allow him to annoy the hell out of Grand Poo Bah Dr. Bowman (Philip Baker Hall) and the woman in charge, aka, the Queen Bee, Dr. Bernice Deagan, played by Allison Janney. [Janney is a well-known face from her work on “The West Wing” and is pitch-perfect in her role of someone just a little bit too fond of rules and regulations. Barbara Bush would say she is a “rhymes with witch” but Bateman/Dodge would just come right out and say she is a colossal bitch].
Bateman’s character is the same glib trash-talking character Vince Vaughan and Billy Bob Thornton have played in countless comedies. He is truly representative of someone who just doesn’t care what other people think or say about him. He is going to have HIS say whether they like it or not.
That, in fact, might well be an accurate one-line summation of the entire plot of “Bad Words.” And many audience members will find that kind of independence and courage liberating.
Sure, there are reasons (revealed as the plot develops) why Bateman’s character Guy Trilby behaves the way he does. A follow-up article in the March 24th Tribune by Steven Zeitchik attributed all the potty-mouthed misbehavior (as well as that of predecessors like Archie Bunker and Jonah Hill) to our current climate of political correctness, where any little joke can spell doom if offense is taken by any group of any kind. It doesn’t matter whether the joke is at the expense of an ethnic group, midgets, or an inanimate object: SOMEONE is bound to take offense. Therefore, characters in films by Judd Apatow, Todd Phillips, the Farrelly brothers, Adam Sandler and others—(all the way back to W.C. Fields)—-say what they’re thinking, which so many of us no longer have the freedom to do, and that is considered subversive in today’s society. Some find it offensive. Some find it liberating and secretly are muttering, “You go, Guy.” (Pun intended)
“Bad Words” was directed by Bateman from a script by a first-timer, Andrew Dodge. Dodge told Zeitchik, “I think comedies have gotten a little vanilla. We’re so afraid of offending, so it’s a reaction to that.” He added, “That makes independent filmmakers more willing to be bold.” The spec script for “Bad Words” kicked around Hollywood for years. A studio executive said to Dodge, “This is funny, but could Guy start helping the kids in the third act?”
Dodge’s response? It’s superhard to make a character likeable enough that you still want to watch him, but hateful enough that it’s still funny.”
Steven Zeitchik postulates that the film is a “Rambo”-like rise of a new type of Superhero: the male hero jerk</strong>. I’m not as convinced that there’s anything “new” to a comic jerk in the tradition of W.C. Fields. I laughed at the clever, smarmy way Bateman pulled off eliminating the other competitors, one by one—even though his methods were underhanded and less-than-honorable. He displayed the kind of psychological warfare that allowed one team to dominate this year’s Super Bowl or allowed Muhammad Ali to defeat the likes of Sonny Liston, 50 years ago. It was strictly, “All’s fair in love and war.”
Still, when Bateman is calling his Indian opponent Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand) “Slumdog” and throwing lines at that adorable Indian boy that sound racist, it can be offputting. In telling the boy not to call a soft drink “soda pop” Guy says, “I’d just say soda. Otherwise, you’re just gonna’ get raped.” You do get the feeling that his young charge really enjoys the adult male attention and that, alone, may be enough of a reason to excuse some of Guy’s bad influence. At least he IS an influence in the lonely young scholar’s life, unlike the rigid father figure who is glimpsed coaching his kid in their own secret strategy to get rid of the competition.
When Guy is placed in a room that is actually the storage closet of the hotel, [a futile attempt to discourage him from competing] and co-star Kathryn Hahn (who plays Jenny Widgeon), the reporter who is his accomplice helping him gain access to the Golden Quill Spell-Off and with whom he occasionally gets it on (while she, all the while, screams, “Don’t look at me!”) asks about her missing underpants, Guy tells her he hasn’t seen them, noting, “I probably would have seen them. I have no sink, no closet and no bathroom.” Guy dubs his miniature admirer “a little Quaker” and, after encouraging him to let loose with some dirty words asks, “And did your soul just burst into flames?”
In other words, Guy is a horrible role model for young children, but his smirky Vince Vaughn-like delivery is hilarious to a slightly jaded and cynical older audience. This is NOT Family Friendly Fare, but the adults should give themselves a chance to feel a little naughty as they watch Guy and his young charge misbehave. Is this a good way to go through life? Probably not. On the other hand, there IS a compelling reason that Guy is the way he is, and you just know that, sooner or later, that will come into play to explain all the previous shenanigans. And maybe some of the more frequent movie-goers will find it a little bit too transparent early on. (“The Sixth Sense” this isn’t.)
The movie definitely is filled with blue language. There are many situations that any self-respecting parent will decry as setting a bad example, just as the employees of “Office Space” were not candidates for Employee of the Year but were funny as hell. For this viewer, the movie was a hoot. It was made even funnier at the Icon on Roosevelt in Chicago by a man a few rows behind me to my left whose loud laughter sounded exactly like explosive farting.
There was a lot of it from my fellow theater-goer on opening night, and even writing that line now makes me smile.
So, if you are not easily offended and enjoy making fun of stuffy, pompous events like The Golden Quill (and, Lord knows, I certainly qualify after my last post), you will find this movie hilariously entertaining. I’d put it in a comic indie category with the film “Cedar Rapids,” which featured Ed Helms and John C. Reilly and was similarly entertaining.