Adrew Dodge, Allison Janney, Bad Santa, Bad Words, Black List unproduced screenplays, Film review, frat boy, frat bro, Jason Bateman, Kanye West, Kathryn Hahn, loveable asshole, misogyny, movie review, Philip Baker Hall, Rohan Chand, spelling bee
“I love French wine, like I love the French language. I have sampled every language, French is my favorite. Fantastic language. Especially to curse with. ‘Nom de dieu de putain de bordel de merde de saloperie de connard d’enculer ta mère.’ It’s like wiping your arse with silk. I love it.”
— The Merovingian, The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
*I saw Bad Words during an advanced screening at the AMC Metreon in San Francisco on Tuesday – 18 February 2014.
One divisive point of interest between me and my friends is my love of Kanye West; not just his music, but the guy himself. Naturally I get why they don’t like him: his (partially) self-made media personality is that of an oversized 4-year-old prone to tantrums. He jumps on stage at award shows, he makes public statements comparing himself with history’s great martyrs, and he just had a child with a tabloid sex symbol. What’s more is that the guy seems on some level aware of irritation he causes, which seems to encourage him even more. What could there possibly be to love about this guy?
Well, quite a lot actually. Kanye comes from suburban Chicago – making him native to a city near and dear to my heart and of a background to which I can more directly relate (he’s never been about “gangsta” posturing). He’s shown an extensive knowledge of art, history, and fashion even when openly expressing such knowledge would normally lead to accusations of closet homosexuality – which it has. The fact that he’s not only shrugged off such accusations, but in 2005 was one of the first rappers to (in the 2005 “Most Fascinating” interview with Barbara Walters) condemn the use of the word “faggot” speaks to his drive. I’ve been meaning to dedicate a full blog to this for some time now, but what I love about the man is that he has an undeniable sincerity; he’s open about everything: from his brotherhood/rivalry with Jay-Z, to hating one of his mother’s boyfriends as a child, to mourning her death, to being a Black superstar for White corporate interests. Kanye is a personified human Id. I love him at his most obnoxious because there’s a truth in his words that is rare in this age of instant press releases. He’s my #1 Lovable Asshole.
And that’s a tricky thing to pull off. From Archie Bunker to Morrissey, Atia of the Julii to Joan Collins, Redd Foxx to Dennis Rodman – there are a great many people whom we laud for walking the line between obnoxious and admirable. Perhaps they do it merely for attention, perhaps they do it because of a genuine disgust for some societal convention. Whatever the case, they’ve made the act of making a spectacle of him/herself as easy as slipping in or out of a suit.
But what people often forget is that the “Asshole” half the equation is the easy part; it’s the “Lovable” part that’s harder to do. Look at those names again. Add a few more if you like. Which ones crossed the line from “adorably rough around the edges” to “oft-forgiven bigot”? Which ones went from merely acting in their personal interests to doing irreparable damage? It’s one thing to brush off what people think of you; it’s quite another to forget that your actions affect others and that you will be held accountable. It’s the difference between someone like Lenny Bruce and someone like Richard Pryor. The former was only provocative to test societal (and legislative) limits on free speech; though we now benefit from the ground he broke, his work wasn’t substantive. Pryor’s work, on the other hand, was always substantive. He simply felt no need to restrict himself in terms of story or content.
If you’re a storyteller who wants to take a character in that direction, by all means go all out. But for God’s sake, have enough sense to but some heart in the middle. Otherwise what’s the point in caring.
Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) has never done anything with his life. At 40 years old, he never completed the 8th grade, works low-level job as a proofreader, and is unmarried. But now he has a way to distinguish himself. Having not completed the 8th grade is just the technical loophole he needs to enter the National Spelling Bee.
Despite the objections of the Bee’s director (Allison Janney), president (Philip Baker Hall), and parents of the other contestants, Guy is determined to make it all the way to the final round. And he’ll use whatever cruel, dirty, underhanded techniques he can get away with to do it.
Several things went through my mind watching this film. A few of them were thoughts of “huh, that’s funny” and “aw, c’mon”. But mostly I kept asking myself “Where have I seen all of this before?” That’s when it hit me: this film wants so desperately to be Bad Santa that it eventually goes from similar to just sad.
Bad Santa is a great example of the Lovable Asshole story done right: despite all of the politically incorrect flaws of title character Willie Stokes, he never once loses touch with his humanity, and thus neither do we. He’s simply stopped apologising for his lack of proper social grace, he isn’t a monster. His irritation is understandable (you try having kids cry, pee, and sneeze on you for hours a day) and so his lashing out is cathartic.
Just as The Fast and the Furious owes a great debt to Point Break, so too is Bad Words beholden to Bad Santa. The new film is also about an unapologetically crass who spends most of his time lashing out against children, but somehow develops a young “sidekick” of sorts. He also spends his off hours drinking and sexing up a woman who is clearly out of his league. He does what he does as part of a larger scheme, but his arch nemeses are determined to stop him. The difference is whereas Terry Zwigoff’s film (scripted by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa) keeps its humanity, I’m not sure Jason Bateman’s directorial debut (scripted by newcomer Andrew Dodge) even had one to begin with.
Dodge’s script made the infamous “Black List” of unproduced scripts in 2011. It’s easy to see why it appealed to Bateman, who’s often typecast as the “nice guy”. But in wanting to choose (and direct) the story of a character who is a 180-turn from his usual stock and trade, he picked one that veers too far into frat boy territory to distinguish itself. Even when his backstory is finally explained, none of Guy’s crassness and misogyny are justified. If anything, it makes him even less appealing because said backstory gives him an unearned sense of entitlement. It’s less about him suffering some childhood trauma and more about him being a privileged adult who wants people to feel sorry for him.
The cast are all fine, but they’re wasted on this script. Jason Bateman is… Jason Bateman – make of that what you will. Rohan Chand as his young sidekick “Chaitainya Chopra” is okay as far as child actors go, but once you’ve heard him say “motherfucker” once, the novelty wears off. The women in the cast fare the worst, by far. Kathryn Hahn is one of the best comedic actresses working today (and I mean that: she’s both comedic and she can act), but her journalist character Jenny Widgeon is little more than a Fleshlight with dialogue. Granted, Hahn is what makes the sex scenes so hilarious, but that’s all her character is good for. And don’t get me started on an underused Allison Janney as the heartless shrew of Bee director. Her character is disposed of halfway through the film and I had half-a-mind to leave with her.
There are scenes in this film where I sincerely laughed out loud and Bateman’s direction is just what it needs to be: nothing too fancy, but nothing too flat. But those laughable moments were mostly in the first 30 min. and Bateman’s inexperience as director leaves him unable to compensate for the script’s shortcomings. I think the guy could keep up directing if he wanted to, just hope that his next script is something more than a clichéd “frat bro” comedy about an overgrown bully with daddy issues.