There are wannabe comedies.
There are actual comedies.
There are family friendly comedies, though if we're being honest with ourselves usually the "family friendly" part mightily dilutes the actual comedy.
There are comedies that think they are being dark and edgy, but they end up watered down by the Hollywood machinery that insists on mass appeal and marketability over anything resembling originality and balls to the walls humor.
Occasionally, a little comedic gem sneaks through the Hollywood machinery like a psychotic monk racing through a weed strewn labyrinth and, almost against all odds, it arrives in theaters with its demented edge, dark spirit, and snarky sensibility intact.
Think Bad Santa.
Admit it. As soon as I even said Bad Santa, you instantly laughed to yourself, probably snorting, while muttering the words "Fuck me, Santa."
Now, think Bad Words.
The directorial debut of Jason Bateman (television's Arrested Development, Horrible Bosses), Bad Words is easily one of the darkest and funniest films to come out in theaters in quite some time. Bateman stars in the film as 40-year-old Guy Trilby, a seemingly do-nothing proofreader who suddenly decides to do something with a vengeance by showing up as a contestant in one of the Golden Quill's regional spelling bees having found a loophole that allows him entry. Guided by a photographic memory and accompanied by an online reporter named Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), Guy subsequently obliterates the competition with a merciless mixture of his own innate talent and a ruthless devotion to tearing down his pre-teen competitors by any means necessary whether that be mocking the fat kid whose chair is pleading "help me" or cruelly convincing a young girl's apparent arrival of her first, um, venture into womanhood.
While it's not necessarily rare for comedies to approach such humor, the vast majority do so with full-on affection intact and tongue firmly inserted into cheek.
Not Bad Words.
Bad Words is almost relentless in its badness and the volume of its badness only gets turned up when Guy arrives at the Golden Quill's National Spelling Bee, being televised for the first time on National Public Television, and encounters a seemingly innocent young lad named Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand, Lone Survivor), an Indian boy whom Guy not even remotely affectionately calls Slumdog. In addition to the children whom he taunts, Guy's arrival at the National Spelling Bee brings him face-to-face with the Bee's longtime director and 1973 champion Dr. Deagan (Allison Janney) along with the Bee's founder, Dr. Bowman (Philip Baker Hall).
Guy and Chaitanya, almost despite themselves, manage to hit it off about as much as Guy can hit it off with anyone with Guy showing just a sliver of emotion every time Chaitanya's distant and demanding father arrives on the scene. The two share a night on the town that stretches the bounds of taste, then stretches it again. And again. Along the way, Guy also tosses out vague answers every time Kathryn Hahn's Jenny Widgeon tries to get him up. Usually, the two just end up frustrated with one another and that, of course, always ends up with sex.
Been there. Done that.
Quit looking at me.
As a first-time director, it's clear that Bateman has learned a thing or two along the way included, most notably, how to manage his actors for full effect. In addition to his own fine and incredibly funny performance, Bateman avoids dominating the film and gives young Rohan Chand plenty of room to convince us all that his brief yet memorable appearance in Lone Survivor was no fluke. The marvelous Philip Baker Hall also really shines here, a delightful blend of reverence and self-righteousness that works quite nicely alongside Allison Janney's usual solid performance. Kathryn Hahn's Jenny Widgeon could have easily been a one-note caricature, but Hahn nicely fleshes her out and gives the film just a dash of heart amidst the heartless humor.
Bad Words softens just a tad towards film's end, a choice I have mixed feelings about, but even with its slight tip o' the sentimental hat it remains from beginning to end a dark and hilarious comedy. Andrew Dodge's screenplay is the kind of script where you'd probably be mumbling to yourself "Did they really say that?" if you weren't simultaneously laughing so hard.
Released into theaters by Focus Features, Bad Words is currently on a limited nationwide release and for those who like their humor on the darker and gutsier side it's a film you'll definitely want to check out.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic