Bad Words Brings Out the Worst in Bateman

Christian Hamaker

DVD Release Date: July 8, 2014
Theatrical Release Date: March 21, 2014
Rating: R for crude and sexual content, language and brief nudity
Genre: Comedy
Run Time: 88 min.
Director: Jason Bateman
Cast: Jason Bateman, Rohan Chand, Katherine Hahn, Phillip Baker Hall, Allison Janney, Ben Falcone

Ever since his childhood roles on Silver Spoons and It's Your Move, Jason Bateman has displayed a devious side. More Eddie Haskell than Bobby Brady, Bateman has made a career of playing characters who could alternate between charm and smarm—a smart-aleck, but likeable in his own way.

Bateman's personality switch-hitting suited him into adulthood as he transitioned from memorable bit parts (State of Play) and supporting roles (Juno) to lead performer (Extract). He had one of his biggest hits in Identity Thief, where he played the straight man to Melissa McCarthy's criminal comic foil, even though that story's attempts at weaving in redemptive elements didn't quite gel.

Bad Words takes a similar tack, allowing Bateman's character, 40-year-old Guy Trilby, to unleash understated but lacerating attacks against children and parents in order to carry out a deeply personal plan. This acting out is played for laughs, making for a more or less uncomfortable viewing experience depending on your tolerance for such pranks and put-downs, even if you’re able to tolerate, as the title indicates, the barrage of bad language.

A product-warranty proofreader, Guy has learned to be a disappointment to himself and to others. So it's no concern to him when he launches a plan to enter The Golden Quill national spelling bee and, in doing so, earns himself plenty of enemies. He exploits some muddy language in the spelling bee's rules to bulldoze his way into the nationally televised finals.

Parents of the other contestants aren't happy. Guy shouldn't be there, they argue, especially because he keeps winning. Guy's a great speller, of course, but his strategy goes beyond knowing which letter goes after which. It's in psychological warfare that Guy has a great advantage, with his decades of life experience allowing him to play his young contestants for fools. He criticizes one bluntly spoken youngster for weighing too much, suggests to another that his mother has been unfaithful to the contestant's father and uses some strategically placed ketchup to convince a contestant that she's having her first period.

A little of that sort of humor goes a long way, but it's the bread-and-butter of Bad Words. If you can't fill up on such humor, don't expect to find much else to redeem the film, despite some attempt to make Guy's skewed motives in entering the spelling bee seem justifiable.

As Guy works his way to larger events, he befriends a young Indian boy named Chaitanya (Rohan Chand, Jack and Jill), whose father has left him alone in a hotel room down the hall from Guy. We can figure out where the story will go, with Guy teaching Chaitanya how to live a little, while Chaitanya helps Guy rediscover a sense of innocence and wonder. Except that Bad Words tilts the balance decidedly in the direction of Guy teaching Chaitanya the lessons the grown man thinks are important. These involve the minibar, theft of a lobster and an encounter with a prostitute.

Sound like a barrel of laughs? Bateman can be appealing when playing up his more manipulative qualities, but Bad Words is so reliant on the crueler side of Bateman's persona that it becomes grating and unfunny, not to mention predictable. Don't let the movie's inclusion of a child contestant as a main character fool you; this is an R-rated comedy that makes you worry for the young actor playing Chaitanya, who's asked to say and do things that will make parents cringe.

There's also Guy's main adult relationship in the film, involving a reporter (Katherine Hahn) covering his exploits. She's traveled with Guy and tried to figure out his motivation for entering the spelling bees, but Guy has given her only a few usable quotes. He's been a willing casual-sex partner for the reporter, whose shame over the matter can't overcome her desire for additional trysts with Guy. These sexual encounters are played for laughs, but they're certainly not the stuff of family viewing, in case anyone reading this and the "Cautions" list below might still be under the impression that this film could be suitable for younger audiences.

Bad Words is Jason Bateman's directorial debut, and while it's not distinguished work, the direction isn't the problem here. No director could have turned this script, by Andrew Dodge, into comic gold. Bad Words doesn't even aim for bronze. Instead, it's content to be the kind of movie people will find on cable TV and watch in snippets, thinking of how much better Bateman has been in other roles and in other films.

Let's hope for better from Bateman next time out, whether in front of the camera or behind it.


  • Language/Profanity: Lord's name taken in vain; several uses of the f-word; lots of foul language; taunting of children; ethnic slurs; jokes about sexual acts and graphic sexual language; a child says a form of the f-word and is asked, jokingly, "Did your soul burst into flames?"; scatological references; a middle finger extended; jokes about pornography
  • Drinking/Smoking: Several instances of drinking, including with a child
  • Sex/Nudity: A reference to breast size; sex scenes played mainly for laughs; a man runs out of a bathroom stall with his pants down; a prostitute exposes her breasts to a boy, who later asks permission to touch them
  • Violence/Crime: Guy pays a prostitute to show her breasts to Chaitanya; a kick to the crotch; a man is hit with a chair
  • Religion/Morals/MarriageGuy says his upbringing was sad because his dad wasn't around; a man, bickering with a woman, asks, "Are we married?"; a sarcastic suggestion about praying toward Mecca; Guy plants the idea that a contestant's mother has been unfaithful to her husband

Publication date: March 21, 2014