We learn that actions don’t always speak louder than words in Bad Words, the directorial debut of actor Jason Bateman that screened on the opening night of SXSW Film.
The film, which originally premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, tells the story of Guy Trilby (played by Bateman), who hijacks a national spelling bee contest, thanks to a legal loophole and the assistance of a journalist looking for the ultimate scoop. Along the way, 40-year-old Guy leaves behind a path of destruction that’s at once sadistic, selfish and hilarious.
To say the least, Guy is an anti-hero that viewers may have trouble identifying with. But this complexity — and moral murkiness — is what compelled Bateman to tell the story. “I prefer my lessons or arcs or themes that I receive as a viewer in films to be pretty subtle. I like to really have to lean in to get them,” he explained during a SXSW roundtable interview.
Poignancy shines through the dark humor of Bad Word as we watch Guy befriend a young spelling prodigy played by Rohan Chand. And as the mystery unravels behind Guy’s interest in the spelling bee, we learn why he's using such an odd platform to lash out at the world. Although it may not excuse his methods, sympathy flows, making Guy’s bellicose personality easier to stomach.
“Hopefully people feel, see and sense that this kind of bad behavior, or mistreatment of people, or bad language, is coming from a somewhat emotionally wounded place and from a guy who is more ignorant than he is hateful,” Bateman said.
When audiences watch the film, Bateman expects comparisons between Guy and Michael Bluth (his beloved role on Arrested Development) to surface. “I certainly think that Michael Bluth is much more seasoned and advanced in his ability to navigate his own emotions and understands how to be more socially acceptable,” Bateman said. “But they’re not so dissimilar. They both have superiority complexes, which are major flaws. It’s just that one knows how to hide it a bit more and one is less apologetic about it.”
As a first-time director, Bateman wasn't only tackling moral complexities, but also refining the technical aspects of filmmaking. He credits his directing qualifications to years of working in television, and learning how to quickly create scenes with quality still a priority.
“In television, you usually have a pretty short schedule and you have a high page count, so you’ve got to be good and fast,” he said. “And with comedy, that’s sometimes even more difficult because you’re trying to make it believable, but yet [a] heightened believable.”
With Bad Words, Bateman pulls it off brilliantly. While the audience watches Bateman the actor bring this flawed but fascinating character to life, they also experience Bateman the director's ability to craft a world from behind the scenes.
Bad Words opens in select theaters March 14 and expands across the country on March 21 and March 28.