Good Kids, “Bad Words” and Ugly Intentions: Jason Bateman makes light of the darkness in his movie directorial debut

In Bad Words, Jason Bateman’s big-screen directorial debut, Bateman plays a 40-year-old who crashes a local, regional and finally national spelling bee.

His Guy Trilby exploits a loophole because he’s on a personal vendetta. We’re not told what or why he’s on his mission for the first two acts of the film, left to watch Trilby outrage and mock flocks of children and their parents alike in his pursuit. Kathryn Hahn plays a reporter, Jenny Widgeon, along for the ride because she smells a hot scoop. As Dr. Bernice Deagan, Allison Janney oversees the Golden Quill spelling bee and tries to thwart Trilby at every turn. Philip Baker Hall’s Dr. Bowman plays host to the bee and will be served a heaping plate of comeuppance. Only 10-year-old Chaitanya (Rohan Chand) stands in Trilby’s way with his pure naive heart and soul, as well as his spelling prowess. He certainly stands a better chance than this kid.

The film’s payoff is satisfying, providing plenty of laughs at the climax.

But we’re still left to wonder why Guy Trilby has to have been such a jerk to so many innocent bystanders on his march to the spelling bee finals. It came across more mean than funny. More bully than prankster.

So. Why?

“We have black coal hearts, comedically,” Bateman told his Arrested Development TV father Jeffrey Tambor in a conversation held at SXSW, where Bad Words screened last weekend at the Austin mega-festival. The film opens in New York City and Los Angeles today, then nationally March 28. “We go pretty dark.”

Dark enough that Bateman knew he’d never convince Scripps Howard or ESPN — sponsors and telecast partner of America’s real national spelling bee — to participate in the film. So it’s the Golden Quill instead. Moved to the San Fernando Valley because if you’re not going to D.C., why spend the money?

Bateman said he’s drawn to dry British humor. Always has been. As for Bad Words, Bateman told Tambor:

“Well, I think what I saw in Andrew (Dodge)’s script and what would lead me to believe that we share this, as well, is that there are — and I learned this from you, quite frankly — that there needs to be a reason for a character to be given something that is funny. I mean, sure, you can write a funny joke. Anybody can say a funny joke and then you can get a laugh. Just by its very definition. You can do a joke. But if you’re going to make an audience laugh through a behavior or a situation, etc. etc., there needs to be something under it. And as a consequence, there usually is not a lot of — or in Jeffrey’s terms — not a lot of winking that’s going on. In other words, it’s deadly serious to everybody inside the film. It’s not funny to them. And if they heard anybody laughing they’d be deeply offended. And, so that’s what this film seemed to have. There’s a deep vulnerability. It’s a drama to everybody inside. So that was challenging to me. To be able to direct and manage that tone.”

Tambor wondered, was it difficult to find the comfortability in that tone?

“The acting part of that tone was not difficult to find because the comedy that I tend to do was very close to drama anyway. I’m usually playing the straight man. Or I’m acting for us. And so that is generally not a very broad flavor of comedy. I’m not taking big swings. I’m not throwing pies or getting hit by them. I’m reacting to that action. So I’m usually pretty straight and muted. So that part of the performance tone was fairly straightforward. For me, which is why I took on the part. I didn’t want to initially.”

“Talk about that,” Tambor replied.

“I asked a couple of bigger, better actors, and they told me to go screw myself,” Bateman joked.

Picking a film to direct that surrounds him with child actors was coincidental? Bateman, 45, got his first big TV gig in 1981 with a role on Little House on the Prairie, where the star Michael Landon also was the director. That fact and experience did rub off on him three decades later, directing Rohan Chand (who previously played Issa Nazir in Showtime’s Homeland).

“It’s amazing how much I could recall,” Bateman said of being directed by Landon on Little House. “He built a really warm, playful environment for me and all of the rest of the kids who were on that show. I loved doing that for Rohan. He loved being on the set. Just, you want to be his friend, you want to be his director, you want to be his co-actor, you want to make him feel safe in a paternal way. He’s such a great little kid. And that was helpful to have that experience.”

Here’s the clip where Bateman’s character meets Chand’s character.

And this is the red-band trailer. Bad Words is rated R (for crude and sexual content, language, and brief nudity), from Focus Features and Darko Entertainment/Aggregate Films/MXN production.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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