It’s easy to see why Jason Bateman wanted to make Bad Words, the new Bad Santa clone written by new comer Andrew Dodge and directed by and starring Mssr. Bateman. It’s a solid vehicle to show off his middle brow, laid back talents and he certainly makes the most of it. He wears the role like a comfy old sweater owned since college that you just can’t bring yourself to get rid of, complete with impeccable comic timing.
It’s also a very entertaining movie. It’s witty and clever and never boring. It’s often a ton of fun. It’s very well crafted.
In fact, it’s so well made that it’s quite easy to overlook the fact that it’s really quite a terrible, terrible film.
The basic story revolves around one Guy Trilby (Bateman), a 40ish year old man who finds a loophole in a nationwide spelling bee that enables him to compete alongside those a few decades younger than he (I guess that Bateman once starring in a TV series called Arrested Development is just one of those serendipitous moments in filmdom).
Why does he do such a dastardly deed? Well, that’s one of the mysteries of the movie, though it becomes pretty clear before long that the target of his tantrum (because in the end, no matter what else is going on, the movie is just one long, big temper t) is one of two people, which means that for much of the movie we’re just waiting for an explanation more than anything else.
And when the big secret is revealed, I went, okay, and…? I mean, what happened to him was not great, but no worse than has happened to many other people who managed to rise above it when they were still teenagers and never found the need to hold their breaths until they turned blue because they couldn’t get their way.
In fact, when the big secret was revealed, I went, wow, talk about being petty.
Because in the end, Guy is little more than a bully, a true blue, steal your lunch money, swirly dervish and grand wedgy of a bully. And like all true bullies, instead of focusing his anger on the person who is causing him his problems, he picks on people who are smaller and less able to defend themselves. Which means that since he doesn’t have the decency to pick on someone his own size, he goes after ten year olds.
Yeah, he’s just that petty and yeah, you’re right, it’s really kind of pathetic all in all.
Oh, he does focus his petulance on a couple of adults: a well meaning mother as well as the woman who runs the spelling championship, Dr. Bernice Deagan (played by Allison Janney). But since they are woman, the first is portrayed as incapable of controlling her emotions because, well, she is female after all. And Deagan is portrayed as a woman trying to do a man’s job, i.e., a bitch (though one has to give it to Janney—you still end up feeling she is more sinned against than sinning no matter the tricks of the trade the screenplay pulls).
In fact, all the women in Bad Words are pretty much fodder for male insecurity, including a reporter sponsoring Trilby who the screenplay, for some reason, feels the need to take down a peg or two by making her a weirdo in bed.
Perhaps the low point here is when Trilby traumatizes a pre-teen by making her think she’s just had her first period, forcing her to run off the stage crying in humiliation. Way to go, Trilby. You made all men proud with that one.
And it doesn’t stop there. Trilby is also racist and homophobic, but only in a cutesy, cuddly Archie Bunker way, with his attacks on minorities carefully calculated to be funny, but not to offend the audience.
In fact, the whole movie is one careful calculation. And you can see the cogs and wheels turning. You can see how the machinery has been put together. You can tell that it came in a DIY kit and that the screenplay has followed the directions that were included very well.
The movie is actually pretty vicious, but the viciousness is such that in the end, you’re not sure who the real bullies are: Trilby, or Dodge and Bateman. Because, after all, Trilby is never a real or believable person, he’s just a construct Dodge and Bateman use to entertain the audience and sell their product, Bateman.
But, wait, there’s more. Everything that Trilby does is supposed to lead to revenge, to humiliation of the person who caused Trilby to do what he did. And just as he is in the position to bring his evil plan to fruition, he…doesn’t.
No, I am not kidding you here. He has made an emotional wasteland of people who are totally innocent of his childhood torment, destroyed them like Ming the Merciless along the way, many of them no taller than a munchkin, none of whom caused him any pain at any time of his life; but when it comes down to the villain of the piece, the true first cause of Trilby’s grievances? Trilby bunts and totally lets him get away with everything.
Oh, Trilby gives him a letter explaining why he did what he did. But I’m sorry, like, big, whoop de do.
And Trilby, who for me is the true nasty piece of work of the story, also gets off scott free and never has to face up to the cruelty he perpetuated on those he left in his wake.
Well, bully for him.
With Kathryn Hahn as Jenny, the reporter, in a through line that doesn’t make a lot of sense. According to the rules of the spelling bee, an entrant has to be sponsored by a news agency of some sort. Fair enough. But what doesn’t quite gel is how the reporter got involved in the first place. If Trilby needed a sponsor before he could enter, how did these two people ever meet such that Jenny could sponsor him? (This is what happens when you begin a story in the middle of act one).
And with Rohan Chand as Chaitanya Chopra, Trilby’s biggest threat as a speller, and the saving grace of the movie. He’s one of those movie kids who’s so adorable you want to drown him like a newborn kitten. But he brings such incredible energy to the film and matches Bateman mano a mano for every scene that he gives the movie any value it has.
In America, as I’m sure no one will be surprised to hear, actresses in movies have a sell by date. They didn’t use to. In the studio days, especially since actresses were under contract and had to be used or paid for not working, stars like Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Olivia de Haviland (to name but a bare few), kept making movies way past their “prime”.
Today, actresses like Jessica Lange, Glenn Close and Holly Hunter (to name a bare few) have to go to television in order to find roles worthy of their talent. And thank god for it.
There are all sorts of reasons for this and I could get into a big discussion about it, but instead, I’d rather segue away and mention that this treatment of actresses is often pretty much an American thing. You don’t see it nearly as often in England where Vanessa Redgrave, Judi Dench and Helen Mirren still play leads (in fact, Dench and Mirren didn’t become international stars until they reached their don’t use after date).
And you don’t see this in France where, in the same way as England, actresses like Isabelle Adjani, Isabelle Huppert and Nathalie Baye not only still have wonderful, strong roles in leads, they have filmmakers who write and make films specifically for them to star in. And you don’t even have to be French. Just ask Kirsten Scott Thomas and Charlotte Rampling.
All of this is a round about way of talking about On My Way, the new vehicle for actress Catherine Denueve, written by Jerome Tonnerre and Emmanuelle Bercot and directed by Bercot, a movie that could probably never be made in the U.S. since most producers would most likely say, who wants to see a movie starring an over the hill actress in the lead?
Deneuve plays Bettie who is not having a good day. She is a chef, but her restaurant is in deep trouble. She is a widow and estranged from her daughter. And her lover has just left his wife to be with a woman twenty years younger than Bettie and who is pregnant with the lover’s child.
And perhaps worst of all, Bettie is having a terrible time finding a cigarette to smoke (one of the running gags here is the difficulty in finding a cig—in a country where it was once the epitome of cool to light up like Bogart and Bacall, it now is becoming harder and harder just to find a place to buy them).
And so Bettie takes off. Just gets in her car during lunch hour and drives out into the countryside where she has a series of adventures, including meeting a man in a bar twenty or thirty years younger who desperately wants to have sex with her (because older woman are better in bed).
Then her daughter calls, begging her to pick up her son, Bettie’s grandkid (a three dollar bill in the making, believe you me), and take him to his grandfather’s while she goes to Belgium to intern for a job (with the movie thus becoming one of those genres that the French film industry might collapse without, the adult/child relationship picture).
There’s also a side stop along the way to do a photo shoot for a charity calendar consisting of the finalists of a beauty pageant held forty years earlier (Bettie was Miss Brittany).
And while all this is going on, she’s still trying to find yet another cigarette (one of the more amusing scenes is Bettie waiting in polite desperation as an old farmer tries to make a cigarette with arthritic hands that won’t quite work like they once did).
In the end, the main reason to see On My Way is, of course, the glorious and luminous Deneuve. She’s as radiant as she was when she first appeared years ago in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. And she carries the movie along on her sturdy shoulders as only an old pro can, making every scene, every moment, count.
At the same time, I’m not sure there’s a lot more to the film than as a vehicle for this legendary actress. The movie itself is episodic, a bit all over the place, goes on maybe a bit too long, and there aren’t a lot of surprises along the way. Like the car that Deneuve drives, it definitely gets where it’s going, but only in fits and starts.
Still, it’s a very entertaining and uplifting movie. And in the end, Bettie’s decision to say “yes” to life, to keep on going, to not turn back but be “on my way”, is an emotionally moving one.