Bad Words and good laughs in Bateman's directorial debut

    “I’m a huge narcissist, and I just watch myself all the time.”

    Not many actors can say this with the right balance of conviction and self-deprecation to hammer home the joke. Then again, not many actors have the wit and comedic timing of Jason Bateman. After more than 30 years in the film industry, multiple  sitcom  successes and some questionable 80’s hair, Bateman’s brand of humor is all but trademarked. This March, he aligns his comedic chops with his filmmaking interests in his directorial debut, Bad Words.

    In the film, Bateman plays protagonist Guy Trilby, a 40-year-old professional proofreader who finds a regulatory loophole and spells his way into the 111th Golden Quill spelling bee, a prestigious national competition normally reserved for kids below the ninth grade. With a few correctly arranged vowels and consonants, he manages to intimidate his competitors, anger their parents and land the Golden Quill its first nationally televised tournament. Accompanying Guy to the spelling bee is journalist Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), whose off-the-record, under-the-sheets interactions with him get in the way of her reporting. If her article ever gets published, it probably wouldn’t sit well with the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics. Put in a way consistent with Bad Words’ setting and R-rating, this premise is a gag-filled C-L-U-S-T-E-R-F-U-C-K.

    Screenwriter Andrew Dodge crams the first act with dose after derisive dose of Guy’s smartassery. In one scene, a cherub-faced competitor sitting next to Guy asks, “What are you doing up on stage, weirdo?” Without a missed beat, Guy responds with, “Your chair called me for help.” His pranks go beyond verbal barrages and even incorporate psychological warfare. He hands a fellow competitor a pair of women’s panties and whispers something about the kid’s mom. Minutes later, he squeezes ketchup onto a girl’s chair, congratulating her on reaching womanhood.

    But Guy’s more than just a foul-mouthed misanthrope, and Bateman makes a point to reach behind the curtain of acerbity and unravel his character’s backstory. In fits and starts, sobering fragments of Guy’s troubled childhood emerge throughout the course of the film. With subdued closeups and uncomfortable silences, Bateman the director allows Bateman the actor to explore what he calls the “deeply flawed” state of Guy’s existence.

    When we spoke with him about his directing process, he was contemplative of his dual actor-director roles on set as well as the film’s dual comedy-drama mood, “huge narcissist” joke and all.

    “I’m attracted to things that have a very specific tone, and the odds of hitting that tone, that target, become greatly increased if you’re behind the camera and in front of the camera,” he said.

    And what is that tone, exactly? Irreverent at times and heartwarming at others, it is perhaps best exemplified by Guy’s interactions with 9-year-old superstar speller Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), his top competitor at the Golden Quill. To call their bond a friendship would be to overlook their inappropriate yet gleefully exhilarating nighttime escapades around LA. Guy is spiteful and anti-social. Chaitanya is equally friendless but effusively charming. Together, they’re not quite father-son and not quite bromance either, the classic Hollywood trope of a mismatched pair. While the Guy-Jenny storyline flickers on and off, never really moving past sexual tension and repartee, Guy’s rapport with Chaitanya hits a genuine note. Guy corrupts his doe-eyed protégée with curses, alcohol and strippers, but their prankish joyrides ironically do more good than harm for them both. Guy instills in Chaitanya a stick-it-to-the-man kind of self-confidence, and Chaitanya in return brings out Guy’s humanity, hinting at the true reasons behind Guy’s spelling bee stunt.

    Moments, scenes and plot progressions build up to a short-lived, dramatic irony-filled big reveal, but this letdown hardly dents the sincerity of Guy and Chaitanya’s storyline. Their onscreen bond is rawer than mere acting. Just as Guy sees a sliver of himself in Chaitanya, Bateman undoubtedly sees some of himself in budding actor Chand. Before his run as Michael Bluth on "Arrested Development," Bateman enjoyed years of childhood stardom with "Little House on the Prairie" and Teen Wolf Too, undoubtedly preparing him for Bad Words' kid-heavy cast.

    “I remembered very clearly how scary it can be on set sometimes, or also how fun it can be [as a kid]. And if you’re having too much fun, you need to let the kids know that it’s time to work in a way that’s not too harsh,” Bateman said. “In Bad Words, I enjoyed kind of jumping back and forth between being their friend and also being their director.”

    For now, Bateman can continue embracing these dual roles. Intent on pursuing his directing career, he will begin production on Family Fang in May, which stars himself and Nicole Kidman as a brother and sister who return home to look for their performance artist parents.

    “I’m not as excited about convincing somebody that I’m different than who I am, as I am excited to create a convincing, fake world for them to be in for an hour and a half,” he said. “I wanted to do directing because I’ve been kind of spying on everyone else working while I’m actually acting. I’m seeing that, ‘Wow, it seems pretty neat what they’re doing with the camera.’”

    If Bad Words’ laughing crowds and enthusiastic social media response offer any indication, Bateman will be doing more than just spying on fellow filmmakers in his future.


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