Bad Words

There are times when a proper bit of profanity is belligerent perfection and there are times when a foul word just seems crass. The difference between the two is all about context: say something filthy in a goofy tone and it will come off as a joke, but say the exact same thing with even a hint of vitriol and it will (at a minimum) come off as rude.

Bad Words is a new comedy that aims to walk the tightrope between those two extremes. The premise of the movie is that Jason Bateman is a forty year old man who exploits a loophole to get into a spelling bee competition which is meant for tweens. If that premise was handled delicately you could see how it would lead to a funny movie - it's not far off from something that a Sacha Baron Cohen character would try to pull off, and I can see him finding a way to make it work. But if that premise isn't handled delicately the results will be dire, because there's a lot of ways that a movie about a broken old man saying rude things to well intentioned children could turn into an offensive bummer. So: is this movie belligerent perfection or merely crass?

Well, honestly, it's a bit of both. Bateman's constant bad attitude around overachieving kids bummed me out more than it made me laugh because his character is being spiteful to people because he is so unhappy himself. The bitterness in his delivery turned lines that could have worked with a lighter touch into toxic bombs.

As the movie gets going, however, Bateman's rough edges end up getting softened, and that opens up the movie a little bit more. When Bateman realizes that he's sitting near a needy child on the plane to the competition he's a racist dick to him, but later Bateman realizes that the kid's dad is uptight and controlling and he softens a bit. Bateman ultimately ends up taking the kid under his wing, teaching him how to mix in some swear words with his S.A.T. words, getting him drunk, even paying a prostitute to give the kid his first glimpse of real live breasts. This, too, proves problematic because it's a guy with daddy issues showing a little kid with daddy issues the wrong way to be a man, but it does lead to some of the only laughs of the movie because once the kid gets rolling he is aces at vulgarity. In fact, the kid's earnest attempts at swearing work so much better as laugh lines than Bateman's disgruntled bile that it's a shame that the kid wasn't the one who started the movie with a foul mouth.

Still, even if those scenes didn't suffer from being too little too late (which they definitely do), they still wouldn't be enough to right the sinking ship, because while they might be funnier than the early scenes they are also incredibly formulaic. Of course the mean old man is going to take the moppet under his wing; the Grinch's heart has to grow three sizes before the movie's over. There's a certain irony to this kid reveling in newfound freedoms in the way that he absolutely had to for this movie to successfully become the movie it was clearly meant to be; by enacting his free will he fulfilled his pre-manifested destiny.

Using bad words well is tricky. They are meant to connote strong emotions, and strong emotions tend to be dangerous and unwieldy. If you thread the needle correctly you can remind people of how vulgar life is in a good way, providing catharsis by taking some of the importance out of patently ridiculous (but often stressful) things like sex. But if you do it wrong you just end up being boorish, which doesn't accomplish much of anything. For most of Bad Word's running time it's purposeful misanthropy seems more like an internet comment board's idea of comedy than actual comedy, which obviously isn't a good path to catharsis. But I will give it this: it didn't randomly derail into hideous pornography or rancid sexism, so I can say that it's less crass than most actual comment boards.

Winner: The Cat

Bad Words on IMDB