Saturday, April 5, 2014

"Bad Words"

 3.5 / 5 

Popular as it was, the humor inside TV series like Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm never grabbed me.  It was sharply drawn, but also sharp-edged, and while it may have captured the angry, exasperated parts of our psyche, it never went deeper and revealed the anger and exasperation itself.

Bad Words threatens to be the cinematic equivalent of those hotbeds of hostile humor.  It's the story of Guy Trilby, a 40-year-old man who seems to have no qualms about exploiting a loophole in a national spelling bee.

The rules state that only people who have not completed eighth grade are allowed to participate.  Guy, it turns out, dropped out of school and never got his junior-high diploma.  Now, he makes his living proofreading manufacturer warranties, and he has become determined to be a contestant in the spelling bee -- and he's not going to let anyone, parent or child, stop him.

That's the set-up, and it's where one of the sardonic satires -- like Bateman's own Arrested Development -- might have stopped.  Ha-ha, here's a grown man sitting among little kids, telling them what he thinks of their linguistic achievements using words that only disappointed 40-year-old men know.

Oh, that's funny all right, especially when Guy meets one of his competitors, a loquacious 10-year-old named Chaitanya Chopra, played with wide-eyed, open-faced optimism by Rohand Chan.  Never work with dogs and children, the saying goes, but what keeps Chan from completely stealing the show is that Bateman and the script by Andrew Dodge never once treat Chan as a joke.  The joke is Guy's attitude toward the kid, but in every other way the little boy is Guy's equal.

Still, it all begs the question of why a grown-up would want to upstage a bunch of kids, and do so with such foul-mouthed, utterly inappropriate scorn.  And that's where Bad Words moves from being funny to being tremendously satisfying.

For most of its brief running time, Bad Words plays the setup like a mystery.  Rather than shying away from what could be going through Guy's head, the story pairs him with a reporter (Kathryn Hahn) who has an awkwardly sexualized crush on Guy.  When they're not having dysfunctional sex, they're sparring over Guy's tight-lipped secrecy about his ambition.

No one can figure the guy out, not the reporter, not the head of the spelling bee (a perfectly imperious Allison Janney), not the other parents, who go ballistic whenever they see Guy.  Chaitanya doesn't try to figure it out, he just sees in Guy the possibility of an age-inappropriate friendship, which is all he wants.

But no one's motivation is quite what it appears to be in Bad Words, and even as the man and the boy make a tenuous connection, there's something unnerving about it, which is exactly what the movie wants us to feel.  We don't want to see this happy little soul get crushed, and since we're not quite sure what's pushing Guy to do what he does, we're not sure anything that's happening is safe.

It is, however, funny.  Bad Words can be wildly over the top -- Guy doesn't see the kids as competition as much as obstacles standing in his path, ones that need to be picked off quickly and with as little hassle as possible.

When Bad Words finally makes its inner logic clear, director Bateman -- who also brings the film an impressive and unexpected visual style -- doesn't let it become mawkish or sentimental.  This isn't a film about finding your heart or seeking long-delayed redemption, so it keeps the laughs coming at a nice pace.  But it is a story that has some genuine drama behind it, and an actual emotional payoff.  Bad Words understands that good people can do the wrong things for the right reasons, and iffy people can do really terrible things for less-than-stellar reasons.  But there are reasons.

Bad Words finds them, presents them, and then doesn't try to preach about it.  In doing so, it introduces a couple of great screen characters in Chaitanya and Guy who are original, memorable creations.  Twenty years after Seinfeld started a trend toward heartless sarcasm that continues to this day, Bad Words is a sharp reminder that mean-spirited jokes can be funny when comics perform them -- but they're even funnier when they spring from an emotional truth, even the warped and slightly illogical truth of a man determined to beat kids at their own game.

Viewed April 5, 2014 -- Laemmle NoHo


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