Give Jason Bateman credit for trying. Many years ago, when Tom Hanks stopped playing likable wimps and started playing more adult characters, Hollywood decided Bateman would be its new likable wimp. He's worn the crown well. In fact, it's not a stretch to imagine Bateman in a remake of The Money Pit or Turner and Hooch. Every now and then Batemen shows a different side, but he generally reigns it in and shows that he's still a good guy at heart. The closest he's come to entirely abandoning his character may have been in Juno, when he played a callow, uncertain man who harbored feelings for the pregnant girl whose child he was supposed to adopt. I liked him in that movie, as he played a sly cat and mouse game with Ellen Page. That's why I looked forward to Bad Words, which Bateman not only starred in but chose as his directing debut. The subject an actor chooses to direct reveals a lot. How does Bateman view himself, I wondered. Would he give us more of his old good guy charm, or would he unleash the unpleasant character he occasionally plays?
The answer is he does both. The movie certainly starts with a noxious bang, with Bateman as Guy Trilby, a middle-aged man who has found a loophole in the rules of spelling bees, and proceeds to tour the country, destroying his 12-year-old competitors. He's a misanthropic, foul mouthed lout, and when he's not spelling overstuffed words like "antidisestablishmentariansism," he's scorching people with some pretty good insults. I loved the first half of the movie, and at times it reminded me of another movie I liked from a few years back, Terry Zwigoff's Bad Santa.
Unfortunately, the anarchy of the first half gives way to a predictable second half. Trilby befriends a young boy he meets at one of the competitions, and you just know that gruff old Trilby is going to soften up. When Trilby mentions a favorite toy car from his childhood, you just know that the kid is going to give him one. On and on it goes. The smart, mean movie of the first half becomes a routine contemporary story involving kicks to the groin, some ho-hum sexual encounters, and a couple of uninteresting plot twists, the most important one involving Trilby's unhappy relationship with his estranged father. I almost wish the movie had just been about a 40-year-old asshole who likes to win spelling bees. He would've been a much more fascinating, subversive character. Instead, Trilby's a lot less interesting once we get to know him.
The movie is unique in one aspect, though. In a way, it's a rom-com about a man and a boy: man meets boy, man loses boy, man gets boy again. They even ride off together at the movie's conclusion.
So what did I gather about Bateman in all of this? The obvious thing was that no matter how unpleasant he is at the movie's beginning, he couldn't quite let go of his good-guy persona. He's also a competent director, for no matter how predictable the story became, it was never dull.
Finally, Bateman has been in the entertainment business since he was a child, and here he is making a movie about spelling bee competitors, which is a form of child stardom. The boy in the movie, played by a likable young actor named Rohan Chand, is lonely and looking for friends. He practically wills himself into Trilby's life. How much of this, I wonder, was a kind of wish fulfillment on Bateman's part, thinking back to his days as a kid star on Silver Spoons and Little House on the Prairie. Had Bad Words been more fearless and not relied on such hackneyed plot turns, it might have been a compelling look at a grown man embracing the embodiment of his lonely inner child. As is, you get to hear Bateman say a lot of rude stuff about a woman's vagina, which is supposedly ok as long as you turn out to be a nice guy at the end.