Jason Bateman, of his directorial debut, Bad Words, offers this gentle caveat: “This movie isn’t for everyone.”
Screened recently at Austin’s South by Southwest festival to a packed auditorium, the film does resist easy consumption. The story centers on a cynical 40-something protagonist named Guy Trilby (played by Bateman) hell bent on ascending in the ranks of a spelling bee meant for children. Thanks to a loophole, naturally, he finds himself in the national competition surrounded by preteens and tweens.
Not that being around innocent children has blunted Trilby’s biting sensibilities. These kids are mere obstacles in the way of his ultimate goal of becoming the champion. At the risk of spoiling too many of the film’s cringier moments, Trilby manages to convince a young contestant that his mother has been less than faithful to his father, prompting a botched word onstage and one less target to be eliminated by any means necessary.
And, of course, that’s not all of the discomfort to be had from Bad Words. Trilby is also an artistic crafter of insults couched in racial or gender stereotypes (and I say this in somewhat clinical language— Trilby’s language is potent, hilarious and deeply unsettling, to say the least). I found myself wishing I could write down his barbs to deploy at a later date before realizing I’d probably get punched in the solar plexus for parroting his words.
But the discomfort that imbues Bad Words is an intentional part of the film’s conceit. “It’s okay for an audience to be uncomfortable,” says Bateman, particularly when that discomfort is evoked through a character with a troubled past. “This kind of bad behavior or mistreatment of people, or bad language is coming from a somewhat emotionally wounded place, and from a guy who’s a lot more ignorant than he is hateful.”
A comedy film like Bad Words that blends characters’ emotional complexity with a barrage of sharp insults and cringeworthy situations — both often directed at children — is appealing for a director like Bateman who seeks out a tonal challenge. Bateman professed a desire to direct complex stories that incorporate elements of pain and pleasure, and all the shades of grade between.
And, of course, that complex narrative makes films like Bad Words an utter pleasure to watch. The movie manages to navigate deftly between discomfort and joy, disgust and empathy. Moments of nearly painfully cringe-y moments notwithstanding, the film is ultimately a remarkable and hilarious meditation on — dare I be so maudlin? — friendship and our obligations to our fellow man.