Jessica Rabbit, in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, informed us that she wasn’t bad, she was just drawn that way, and I would like to steal and remix that quote in defense of Jason Bateman, the star and director of the new Focus Feature indie comedy Bad Words. Bateman doesn’t merely have a bad (potty) mouth, its his smirky demeanor and dark sensibilities that color our perception of him, but who’s complaining, really? I love how his appearance onscreen reminds me of walking into a party and beginning the inevitable search for a familiar face, someone else in the lonely crowd who has been coerced into showing up and will join me for a conspiratorial drink and some off-color commentary about banality of the proceedings that will unfold before us. Bateman will make me laugh, but he will never succumb to trying too hard to do so. He will share in the easy banter, holding his own without crowding anyone out. He will likely be the funniest guy in the corner, although he will keep the funniest bits to himself for the sake of everyone else.
That last notion perfectly describes what happens in Bad Words. The film is a showcase for Bateman who rarely takes center stage. He’s not a Jack Black or a Melissa McCarthy screw-up, button-pushing and mugging audiences for a laugh. Bateman’s too smart to be broad and slap-schticky, but there is a meanness, an instinct to punch you in the gut, so he can watch the element of surprise overcome you, as he stands there squinting and smirking, just a bit, to let you know he really didn’t intend to hurt you.
This is what he exudes, in spades, in Bad Words. His Guy Trilby is on a mission, right from the start, but no one knows what it is and he’s not telling. He keeps his own counsel better than anyone. Guy’s inscrutable and angry. You kinda have to be in order to embark on a plan to enter local and regional spelling bees – where the contestants are primarily ten year olds – and dominate kids in front of their parents. The first time I interviewed Will Ferrell (for the wonderfully underrated dramedy Stranger Than Fiction), he shared a story about how he prepared himself for comedy back in high school. Ferrell said he decided, one day, to go to school in a pair of footy pajamas. He figured, if he could withstand a day’s worth of ridicule for wearing the pajamas, he would be able to handle the derisive laughs that might come his way on stage and during performances. Guy seems to have settled upon his own version of this, but he’s aiming for something more than to toughen up his comic sensibilities.
Guy is not in Bad Santa mode; languishing in a downward spiral, seeking to inject and infect others with some small amount of the venom inside that is threatening to corrosively eat him alive. No, despite his own admission, his plan to disrupt The Golden Quill National Spelling Bee at just the moment it has gained a national audience is deviously well-plotted and destined to succeed, even as it succumbs to the usual sentimental pitfalls that trip up most hip indie comedies. Guy’s initial encounter with fellow contestant Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand) and their inevitable relationship achieves an organic happenstance that just feels right without becoming overwhelmingly sweet. Again, credit Bateman, here as both actor in their shared scenes and as director. He lets us know that he’s unafraid of the old school adage about working with children and animals because he wants us to identify with Chaitanya. That way the plot and the story, as well-oiled as it is, gets a little tension release, and Bateman’s Guy gets to sidestep the constant demands, for a few key moments, of being the central figure driving the movie.
But really, what else would we expect from a natural character like Bateman. Notice I left off the “actor” on that designation. Bateman has proven that he’s much more valuable than that. He’s a character with character, in front and behind the camera. (tt stern-enzi)