TORONTO – In hindsight, no one should be surprised that Jason Bateman turned out to be a very smart and talented movie director. The Hollywood veteran has had a lifelong lesson in what works and what doesn’t whether it was on the set of TV’s “Silver Spoons” when he was a teenager, amongst the creative ensemble of “Arrested Development” or any number of hit comedies he’s starred in over the past five years such as “Identity Thief” or “Horrible Bosses.” And did we mention he’s been directing TV sitcoms since he was 20? With “Bad Words,” which premiered at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival Friday night, Bateman will make many wonder if some of his recent flicks might have actually been even better if he’d been behind the camera instead of just in front of it.
The first produced screenplay by Andrew Dodge (and a 2011 Black List selection), “Bad Words” centers on Guy (Bateman), a quick-witted, unfiltered 40-year-old who is on a mission to win the prestigious National Quill Spelling Bee. Dodge and Bateman waste no time having Guy crash a local National Quill competition using a little known loophole to get in: only participants who have not graduated from the 8th grade by the time of the spelling bee are eligible. Well, Guy dropped out before the end of 8th grade so technically he qualifies. Just to be safe, Guy has recruited a reporter who knows a good story when she sees one (Kathryn Hahn) to sponsor him and provide legal assistance. After forcing himself in, Guy turns out to be something of a genius and wins tournament after tournament. Before you know it he’s on his way to Los Angeles to participate in the first TV broadcast of the national spelling bee final. Not so surprisingly, the heads of the organization, played by Allison Janney and Philip Baker Hall, are none too pleased about it. Things get even more interesting when Guy meets a charming fellow competitor named Chaitanya (Rohan Chand) who is likely his top rival to win the $50,000 prize.
Naively, the 10-year-old is intent on making Guy his friend even if Guy wants absolutely nothing to do with him. Throughout the course of the movie their relationship takes unexpected turns and this pairing is why Dodge’s screenplay is more than just hilarious R-rated take downs spouting from Guys’s mouth. While “Bad Words'” conceptual similarities to Terry Zwigoff’s 2003 R-rated classic “Bad Santa” are obvious, “Words” differentiates itself by arriving at the finish line with something of a twist.
Bateman hasn’t played anyone this outwardly “bad” since the underrated 2006 comedy “The Ex” and he seems to be relishing it onscreen. His trademark sarcastic wit and comic timing always seem to keep things moving when there is a hint things could drag for a moment or two. Chand, on the other hand, basically steals the second half of the movie out from under Bateman and is arguably its most valuable player. As for Hahn, the point of her character is to ask all the questions the audience wants to know the answers to and by the end of the film she doesn’t really have much to do. That being said, her sex scenes with Bateman are truly some of the movie’s most hilarious and memorable moments. Happily, Hall gets more relevant screen time than he’s had in years and Rachel Harris has a fantastic cameo as a mom who just can’t take Guy’s antics anymore.
“Bad Words” has the chance to be a breakout hit depending on the acquirer, but it’s an R-rated comedy that will need special care with the right demo in mind. Then again, even if it only turns out to be a modest success, it certainly foreshadows that Hollywood will soon be asking Bateman to spend a good deal more of his time in the director’s chair.