Bad Santa, With Indian Jokes
If Jason Bateman has become Hollywood’s go-to sweetboy rube in all their broadest comedies, the guy paid to pout when Melissa McCarthy farts at him, his feature directorial debut, Bad Words, is an attempt to expose his inner Calvin, cackling weaselishly and pissing on everything. And while the crude comedy is generally thought of as an immature gesture (albeit the universally cathartic kind, like flipping the bird, I bet even Dame Judi Dench likes flipping the bird), it takes a veteran’s mastery of craft to make a film this formulaic still feel rebellious.
Which is to say, obviously, that there’s a clear formula at work throughout Bad Words. Beginning with the very title itself, which pegs it firmly within the Bad ___ sub genre, popularized by Bad Santa, Bad Grandpa, Bad Teacher, Bad Blake from Crazy Heart, and notably George Thoroughgood. “Formula” is an especially dirty word when you’re talking comedy. No other genre places so high a premium on being new or fresh. Surprise is implicit to humor. By the time you can explain why a joke works, it’s not as funny anymore. Conversely, something that makes you laugh for reasons you can’t quite explain is a kind of magic, up there with a really good song for creating the kind of joy that only comes from believing that there’s still mystery to the universe. A big belly laugh makes you believe in immortality, if only briefly.
Bad Words is strange in that I know why it’s supposed to work – Jason Bateman swearing at little kids, mostly – and yet it still does. The whole thing is full of those punchlines you see coming a mile away but laugh at anyway. The film is like a boxer who’s winding up his fist the whole fight, but when the long-expected knockout punch finally comes, it’s thrown with such speed and technique that you still can’t avoid it.
The gist of the film is this: Jason Bateman is an asshole. He drinks too much, he sleeps around, he’s cocky, and he’s mean to little kids. Yes, we’ve seen and been asked to laugh at this character many times. Inevitably, a lot of critics will spend their reviews wondering why we’re supposed to like this guy, when the obvious answer is that we’re not, so don’t sweat it. Even the casting choices are kind of hacky, down to this lady as a disapproving mother:
Her name is Beth Grant, by the way, and every time I see her playing a disapproving mother, I groan a little bit inside. It’s kind of like seeing James Rebhorn playing a pompous blue blood. Certain character actors are so frequently typecast that seeing them play that character again just feels lazy, like they cast a character description, a “type” instead of a person.
As we’ve seen in Bad Santa and Bad Grandpa, the key to a “Bad ____” movie is a cute little kid whose relentless positivity keeps us invested even when the dick protagonist has become repellant. Bad Words‘ cute little kid is Rohand Chand, playing Chaitanya Chopra, a fellow competitor at the national spelling bee in which Bateman’s character has found a loophole that allows him to compete as a grown-ass man. Kids in comedies are rarely recognized for their acting in movies like this. It’s always the Anna Paquins and the Hushpuppies from the Bathtubs of the world garnering the awards attention before they’ve hit puberty. But Chand, with his big, doe-like saucer eyes and perpetual earnestness, is up there with Thurman Merman for criminally underrated comedic performances (or destined-to-be underrated performances, as it were). Whatever time Bad Words saved casting the adults was clearly devoted to casting the kids, and on that score, it was well spent.
Bad Words is essentially a simple movie about simple pleasures, like Bateman suggesting that a competitor’s mom “stuff her pre-teen cocksucker son back in her old sweatsock of a vagina and f*ck off back to whatever shit-kicking town she came from.” The premises might not be so creative, but the execution is sublime. It seems to be a movie for gleefully vulgar English majors (see: wheelhouse, my). And Bateman’s smart enough to know that simple pleasures are supposed to be simple, and thus, he delivers punchlines like a quick knife to the belly, rather than a royal proclamation accompanied by banners and trumpeters, as is the usual, loud-enough-for-the-people-in-the-cheap-seats custom.
But why is he so mean?!? Because sometimes that’s fun. It’s a series of nasty little f*ck yous, because f*ck you. It’s things we’ve seen before – the doing donuts scene from Superbad, the slow motion bro-walk from Royal Tenenbaums, the public spectacle from Little Miss Sunshine – but it feels so natural and casual. It’s not subversive, just snotty. People get hung up on snotty, thinking it’s an attempt to be genuinely subversive, but it generally isn’t. It’s just celebrating the joy of being a juvenile little shit.
Lastly, I must describe the screening itself. It was scheduled to start at 7 pm, but instead of the movie playing then, we were treated to a 40-minute stand-up show. That’s right, a surprise comedy show, before a two-ish hour movie. Hope you all peed and ate before this! I don’t know if the plan was to warm up the audience, sitcom-style, but I can assure you that a crowd of out-of-town tourists who came to LA to see celebrities is different animal entirely than a room full of film critics on a schedule who normally get very pissy if you start the film 10 minutes late. But my fellow SF comedians handled it beautifully, led off by the very funny Sean Keane, and the audience warmed to them, despite ourselves. Then, once that was over, now about 50 minutes behind schedule, we were treated to one preview before the film. It was the red-band trailer for, you guessed it, Bad Words, the movie we were all about to watch. It was one of the weirder screenings I’ve ever been to. But it truly fit the shouldn’t-be-funny-but-it-is theme, almost as if Focus Features was trying to tell us “not even spoiling these jokes could spoil these jokes.”
The balls on these people.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.