Bad 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.
For 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.
I 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.