The always likable Jason Bateman has progressed nicely from a child and teen actor on such TV series as Little House on the Prairie and Silver Spoons to the adult star of TV’s Arrested Development and such hit movies as Juno, Horrible Bosses and Identity Thief. Now, he is making his feature film directorial debut with the raunchy comedy Bad Words, opening today in Los Angeles and New York and nationally on March 28th.
Like many an actor turned director before him, Bateman also takes on the lead role of Guy Trilby, a 40-year old with a sizeable chip on his shoulder who has taken to crashing — and winning — grade school spelling competitions. Trilby exploits a lack of specification regarding participants’ age in the rules of the Golden Quill national spelling bee, much to the dismay of parents, teachers and a curmudgeonly pair of Golden Quill executives played by Philip Baker Hall and gay fave Allison Janney.
Alternately aided and stymied by an oversexed reporter out to uncover his mysterious past (Kathryn Hahn from We’re the Millers, in this film’s least developed role), Trilby also finds himself the fixation of a 10-year old fellow competitor, Chaitanya Chopra (a great, star-making turn by Rohan Chand of Homeland and Lone Survivor). Trilby surprisingly and possibly unwisely begins to lower his defenses in the company of his young fan. As Jenny, the reporter, asks Trilby via one of the film’s funnier lines, “Has the Grinch found his little Cindy Lou Who?”
Bad Words is a bit rough around the edges directorially/technically and the screenplay’s crudeness is strained at times, but I enjoyed the story and performances. Other welcome, veteran faces in this film’s cast are Steve Witting (Shutter Island, The Wolf of Wall Street) as the Golden Quill’s put-upon proctor and Beth Grant of The Mindy Project and Sordid Lives fame. Despite the inclusion of Chand and a number of smart moppets, though, Bad Words is definitely not a family film. Parents need to take its R rating seriously.
Also opening this weekend in LA is the gay-themed Tennessee Queer, a somewhat dated and preachy but well-intentioned dramedy. Written and co-directed by Mark Gorshon Jones — who is a real-life, openly-gay Presbyterian deacon — it centers on Jason Potts (played by Christian Walker), a successful young librarian living with his devoted partner in NYC but contemplating a move to London. Jason’s living in either New York or the UK doesn’t sit well with his mother and siblings, who reside in the family’s hometown of Smythe, Tennessee and yearn for Jason to return there permanently. The irony is that while they are accepting of Jason’s homosexuality and relationship, the rest of the town is pretty much stuck in the conservative 1950’s when it comes to GLBT acceptance… or the lack thereof.
Jason strikes a deal with his family: if Smythe’s leadership will permit him to organize their first-ever Pride parade, he will stay. Figuring his proposal will never fly with the city council, Jason is shocked when they approve it but for ulterior motives. The anti-gay mayoral candidate, in league with local right-wing religious leaders, sees the parade as a perfect opportunity to identify the town’s GLBT members so they can run them out or, if they are teenagers, send them off to a fundamentalist camp that specializes in converting those “suffering” from same-sex attraction.
Tennessee Queer is burdened with performances of mixed quality, moments of forced conflict and/or humor, some GLBT and AIDS stereotypes, and an irritatingly cartoonish music score. On the plus side are Ryan Parker’s excellent cinematography, a nice sense of location, and the film’s ultimate illustration of the truth that embracing diversity brings communities (and churches) together. That Tennessee Queer, shot in 2012, strikes me as dated at times is actually a very good thing. It proves the US has come a long way toward GLBT acceptance and equality in a mere two years, thanks be to God.
Bad Words: B
Tennessee Queer: C+
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.