Bad Words and Good Writing: A lesson in screenwriting

Bad WordsBad Words is the kind of movie that gives critics trouble. It’s easy to write about the dregs – I could pound out 1,000 words on Need for Speed without breaking a sweat – and it’s easy to write about the good stuff. It’s the middle-of-the-road movie that is hardest to capture. But let’s give it a try, because I think there is an important screenwriting lesson to be learned from considering it.

First off, let me say right up front that Bad Words, Jason Bateman’s directorial debut, is a pretty good movie. It’s funny and irreverent, it has an interesting and strong central character, and it manages to balance its sweetness and its crassness better than most similarly inclined films. I credit Bateman for this – both his acting and directing are quite good. However, it is not for everybody. Much of it is in poor taste. Of course, To Be or Not to Be (1983) and Dr. Strangelove (1964), two of the greatest filmed comedies ever, were arguably in even poorer taste, so that in and of itself should not be a disqualifier. Bad Words is not as good as those movies, so you may be less inclined to forgive it.

As for me, I have no real problem with its more tasteless moments. My problem is with the shortcuts taken by screenwriter Andrew Dodge. Dodge has a good premise and he has written a lot of very good material. Guy Trilby, a 40 year old maladjusted spelling savant, insists on competing against children in a prestigious national spelling bee, much to the mortification of children, parents, and organisers alike. Guy has his reasons, which will become clear by the end of the story.

I suppose it would possible to construct this movie without a relationship between the man-child and an actual child, but I don’t fault Dodge for resorting to such a relationship. In fact, he does a very good job of it. Rohan Chand plays Chaitanya Chopra, a ten-year old contestant who befriends Guy, and their mutually beneficial relationship provides Bad Words with its heart. Such a relationship could have been far more cloying, and Dodge is at his best when Guy and Chaitanya are together. What keeps the movie from being truly inspired can be found in all the other scenes.

Dr. Strangelove bad wordsFor this is not a two-character comedy. There are others. There is Kathryn Hahn playing Guy’s journalist sponsor, Jenny, who is writing a story about him (and occasionally sleeping with him). There is Allison Janney, as the spelling bee director, who makes it her mission to sabotage Guy’s pursuit of the prize. There’s Anjul Nigam as Chaitanya’s Machiavellian father. And there’s Philip Baker Hall, as the man who has created the prestigious contest. These are pretty formidable actors, all. Unfortunately, the screenplay gives them nothing to do.

None of these characters exists in his or her own right. Each exists to further the story of Guy and his young friend. And this is the main reason that Bad Words feels thin. Entertaining, at times thought-provoking, but thin. Case in point: At a key moment, Guy has a heated argument with Chaitanya. He says things that would cause any parent – indeed, any responsible grown-up – to intervene. Chaitanya’s father is standing right behind him when this happens and he says nothing. Of course, he says nothing because had he intervened, it would have taken the dramatic focus off of the confrontation between the two principals. But this moment is so patently false that it undercuts that crucial interaction.

The same applies to all of the key supporting characters. Jenny learns a piece of critical information about Guy and his motivation in the middle of the story. She wants to discuss it with him, and she has the opportunity to do so when they are alone outside their hotel. But she insists on going somewhere else to talk, and when Guy refuses, she storms off without mentioning it. She does not mention it because it is too early in the plot for this information to be revealed to the audience, so again, we get a false moment – a supporting character acting, not as a believable character but as a functionary designed to tee it up for the main players. Janney, who is set up to be a strong adversary, is a straw man, too easily disposed of, and Hall, easily spotted as the key behind-the-scenes figure, never gets the types of moments or development such a character deserves.

the-palm-beach-story-l-r-rudy-vallee-claudette-colbert-joel-mccrea-bottom-mary-astor-on-window-340271 bad wordsI could go on, but I think you get the point. This particular screenwriting issue is perfectly displayed in Robert Duvall’s vanity piece The Apostle (1997), which he wrote, directed, and starred in. He plays a fascinating character, but the movie falters because everyone else exists only to prop up that character. I fear Andrew Dodge makes the same mistake, and it takes what could have been a very good, subversive comedy, and turns it into a pretty good, bad-taste comedy.

If you compare the Bad Words’ screenplay to that of one of the better comic screenplays from the greatest American comic screenwriter, Preston Sturges, this point is in stark relief. Consider, for instance, what Sturges does in The Palm Beach Story (1942). The heroine is fleeing her husband to pursue a divorce. She needs to enlist the help of a New York City cabbie. That cabbie has something like three lines in the whole movie, and yet one of them is a great line, revealing a fully formed character with his own point of view. Extending this to many of the other supporting characters helps create a remarkably full and complex world. Sturges movies, no matter how silly they may appear on the surface, never feel thin.

The ending of Bad Words is not very good either. It makes little sense based on the internal logic established for the spelling bee, and more importantly, it is out of step with the tone of the rest of the movie. It’s a little too sweet and happy-ending-ish. There was a much better ending that could have been easily constructed, but since I didn’t feel like using the SPOILER ALERT label, I will not mention it. Email for more details.

 

 

Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

11 thoughts on “Bad Words and Good Writing: A lesson in screenwriting

  1. I feel like the movie’s dark tone was one of its greater strengths and weaknesses. It allowed for plenty of fresh, raunchy humor and freedom in characterization. But it also was hard to be fully on board with Guy. I agree that the ending didn’t quite cut it given the film’s edgy tone. I was wondering what you would’ve done differently for the ending?

    • Thanks for the comments, Gibson. I would have ended it with both Guy and Chaitanya being disqualified for breaking rules and violating the spirit of the competition, which is almost certainly what would happen in real life. The award would have gone to the cute little guy who came in third. Then, a denouement in which Chai has a brief scene with Dad, and Guy has a brief scene with Dad in which he basically declares that he’s done with the past. The final sequence would be either Guy and Chai taking the cute little guy out for a celebratory ice cream and prostitute, or maybe just Chai taking him out with Guy merely catching a glimpse of them, remaining an outsider. But they didn’t ask me.

  2. I’m a big Jason Bateman fan—mostly because of Arrested Development, unsurprisingly—but I find he’s better at playing a nice guy than a jerk. It’s too bad that the script in this movie lacks thoroughness and genuineness, because it’s seems like exactly the kind of quirky plot that could be very clever and entertaining. Might still go see it. Out of curiosity, did you ever watch Extract? What did you think of that?

    • Thanks Alina. I think you’ll like Bateman in Bad Words. It’s a good role for him. About Extract, I thought it had a lot of funny moments but I was still vaguely disappointed. The funniest parts came from supporting players like J.K. Simmons and Beth Grant. Afleck didn’t do it for me at all. I liked Bateman, but I think the premise worked better in Office Space, with a 20-something telling the business world to go to hell. Extract aims higher, with a more complex hero, but to me, Mike Judge seems trapped in adolescent anarchy, and the whole thing just doesn’t quite hold together. What did you think about it?

  3. Typically sharp writeup, Jon. And good points about the great To Be or Not To Be and Dr. Strangelove. I haven’t seen Bad Words yet, but I suspect all your insights are correct. To a certain extent, I felt similarly about movies such as Horrible Bosses, which had its share of funny moments as well as what appeared to be lazy writing. A good script is hard to find these days … though I guess it’s been hard to find throughout cinema’s history, too. Fine piece, once again.

    • Thanks Simon. I don’t think there’s any doubt that the art of screenwriting has deteriorated in the era of packaged blockbusters, where the traditional elements of the screenplay aren’t valued as highly as they once were. Or, as Willem Dafoe, so ominously playing Max Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire, said back in 2000 “I don’t think we need the screenwriter anymore.” Still, as long as there are Debra Graniks and Charlie Kaufmans out there, I have hope.

  4. Intelligent arguments as always Jon, but sadly about a film that I cannot ever see myself wanting to watch. Jason Bateman, Spelling Bee, contrived comedy situations, all things that would make me reach for the off switch, let alone bother driving to a cinema. I have no arguments at all with your thoughts about writers and writing, I just would never take a film like this that seriously in the first place.
    Hang on though, Philip Baker Hall? (Hard Eight) Perhaps I am interested, after all…
    Regards from England, Pete.

    • Don’t do it Pete. Not if Philip Baker Hall is your primary motivation. You will be disappointed. As for me, I’m willing to accept some contrivance in exchange for a lot of funny and smart. The equation here doesn’t quite balance out, but it did come closer than I thought it would.

  5. Roger Ebert made an interesting observation on screenwriting in general: A movie is not “What” it is about, but “How” it is about. A recent case in point was Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine”. The screenplay often resorted to easy fixes in order to create drama and further the story. Andrew Dice Clay’s sudden appearance towards the end, for example, was painfully contrived in order to spin the story towards its finale. Still, it was a good movie. Well acted, full of interesting characters, entertaining and thoughtful. Another less dramatic case in point, since car movies came up above: “Fast Five”. Intelligent and cleverly written. Oh, hell no! But was it fun for what it was? Oh hell yeah! It was a kick with (SPOILER!) no less than a giant metal safe being dragged down the streets of Rio by two cars causing mass destruction as a finale. “What” it was about, was not great art, but “How” it was about, truly delivered.

    • I think there’s a lot of truth to that. Dice Clay’s appearance at the end of Blue Jasmine may be contrived to a degree, but it doesn’t bother me. (The fact that all these Jersey boys are roaming the streets of San Francisco bothers me more). I’m rarely bothered by individual unlikely occurrences. Most drama is built on the unlikely. I am bothered by repeated unlikely occurrences. We all probably draw our own lines between interesting complex behavior and false behavior. And, as you note with Fast Five, genre matters. I don’t fault Betty Garrett for singing My Place to Frank Sinatra in On The Town because I know it’s a musical. In Bad Words, I go in prepared to accept somewhat more contrivance because it’s a comedy. But if I didn’t have to accept quite as much of it, I think it would be a better comedy.

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