There’s a quagmire that lies in wait for a movie that markets itself almost wholly on dark humor: Those who miss the mark probably don’t land near Too Truthful nearly as often as they land near Lazy. Without sufficient quality to back it up, it risks vanishing into the vat of failed-dark-comedy sludge Hollywood keeps out back.
Luckily, Bad Words has strong bones. It follows Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman), a dedicated misanthrope who exploits a loophole to join a national children’s spelling bee, while reluctantly befriending a fellow contestant. A talented cast—including Kathryn Hahn, Philip Baker Hall, Allison Janney, and Rohan Chand—underplay what could slide into stock parts; Hahn and Janney, in particular, make the most of their sharp edges. And in his directorial debut, Bateman adopts an assured yet low-key style that makes the most of quirky hotel décor, a slightly-seedy nighttime L.A., and reaction shots several beats longer than is comfortable, an unsettling thread through this pitch-black comedy.
The comedy itself it up for debate. Screenwriter Andrew Dodge made the 2011 Black List (a who’s-who of unproduced screenplays), suggesting some demand, and Bad Words makes it almost to the last act at a sufficient distance from Trilby to observe without being asked to sympathize. Observed: racist jokes about Indians and Muslims—used interchangeably, of course; dozens of homophobic slurs, and bursts of psychological warfare against tearful middle-schoolers. It paints a vicious portrait of a deeply damaged guy. Unfortunately, the sheer density of punching-down comedy ends up closer to the feature-film equivalent of a Reddit tirade.
Between bouts of hostile humor, Bad Words understates the ache behind Trilby’s misery on the way to a surprisingly upbeat conclusion, especially for a movie with so many sharp edges. Too bad the farce feels more like a blunt instrument.