Saturday, April 5, 2014

BAD WORDS (2013)
A Double Feature Review
In a giant multiplex setting, let's just say there are sometimes opportunities for creating your own double feature experience. So yesterday, my wife and I saw this noting-in-common combo.
First Captain America, and the goods parts therein. In movies based on comic books, the character of Captain America is probably second only to Superman in being a difficult one to portray in a way that isn't fairly corny. Literally a man out of his time, and an honestly honest and gee-whiz decent person, Captain America/Steve Rogers provides a tough balancing act for an actor. Chris Evens, once again, finds that balance. He is honest without being hokey; patriotic without being a prick about it. I don't really know if he's a great actor or not, but in this role, he does very commendable work. Anthony Mackie, as Cap's new friend and sidekick Sam Wilson AKA the Falcon, also did a good job in a somewhat thankless role. He and Evans (after a nicely set up "meet cute") have a good, believable chemistry, one which will doubtlessly serve the series well as it moves forward.
As for the rest of the film...Well, it was...okay. I thought the first Captain America movie was one of the best Marvel-based films made. It had to introduce multiple characters, straddle time periods between World War II and the upcoming Avengers movie, and generally keep quite a few balls in the air all at once - which it did. The sequel, however, seems far too content to rely on CGI effects blowing things up. Just like the second Thor film, this one, especially the "big" climax, feels like a case of deja vu all over again. The entire world in jeopardy? Check. Giant ships and superheroes battling in the skies over a major city? Check. Flames and destruction raining down on said city? Check. And color me somewhat checked out at this point, y'know?
With the plot here, as stated above, once again placing the whole world in peril (due to the machinations of the secret society Hydra, whose members have infiltrated the world-protecting S.H.I.E.L.D. organization), this films runs into the problem that often vexed characters in comic books: When the safety of the entire world is on the line, why don't these heroes ever call in their fellow (and more powerful) superhero friends? As I watched Captain America and the Black Widow running hither and yon trying to stop Hydra's evil plans, I just kept wondering, "Why doesn't Cap call Iron Man? Or the Hulk? Or..."
Not to worry, of course, since Cap manages to save the day (and the planet) in the end. Now, I don't wish to sound ungrateful for all that, but, I still left feeling a little cheated. For the character of Captain America, this felt a lot like a holding pattern, aside from introducing the Falcon. In terms of the larger, collective Avengers story arc, this didn't advance that at all. And, I'm sorry, but, I still don't buy Scarlett Johansson as a Russian, as an assassin, as a superhero, or anyone to take at all seriously in this context. (I swear she was chewing gum in several scenes.)

What will be interesting to see moving forward though, is how all these interlocking characters and plots evolve. There have been superhero franchises before, but they've always been standalones. Thus, when they ran their course (creatively and/or financially) the studios have just rebooted the character(s) involved and started over again. But that won't be possible here. Now that Cap and the Hulk and Thor and everyone else are all playing together, it's hard to imagine Marvel Studios just deciding to pull, say, Iron Man out and start all over again with the character. So far as I know, this is uncharted territory for Hollywood. Though the Marvel films have been a very mixed bag, I am curious to see how this dynamic plays out over the coming years.
Moving on now...
Generally, I think if you've made a film that really only has ten or fifteen killer minutes in it, it's probably best to put those minutes near the end, to finish on a high note, and send the audience out satisfied.
Unfortunately for Bad Words, what I think were the best ten minutes of the film were the first ten minutes of the film. The very first line had me laughing, and I was hopeful that I was seeing the start of a little gem. But, though there were other bright moments spread throughout the film, it didn't even come close to maintaining the promise of its own opening. The heavy hand of having to have "likeable characters" and a "happy ending" were obviously clamped down on this production.

Directed by and starring Jason Bateman, Bad Words tells the story of Guy Trilby (Bateman), who, for reasons unknown, has found a loophole that allows him to compete in a national spelling bee intended for children. In the beginning, Guy is presented as being, at best, a difficult person to like. His notably unsympathetic character was, in my opinion, a real strength in the first third of the film. The fact that he was acting on unknown motives was also engaging. It was possible to imagine any number of fairly dark things driving him, which only added to the film's initial black comedy appeal.
Ah, but then...We are introduced to one of his rivals in the spelling bee, nine-year-old Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand, who does do a very good job of being annoyingly adorable). Guy's initial responses to the chirpy Chaitanya are rude, crude and dismissive. But soon enough, the kid is worming his way into Guy's heart, which severely weakens the bleak, black heart of the film itself. By the time that we learn Guy's motive for entering the spelling bee, Bad Words has pretty much run out of steam.
But it never does quite run out of sexism, sadly. This film definitely doesn't pass the Bechdel Test. (Google it if you're not familiar with it.) Though Kathryn Hahn has some nice moments as the "reporter" covering Guy's progress, there were problems with much of the rest of the film. Though both of Chaitanya's parents are seen, and described as having a keen interest in their son's performance in the spelling bee, only his father gets any dialogue. His mother is seen but not never speaks. The only black woman with a speaking part in the film plays a street whore who exposes her breasts for Chaitanya. And so it goes.
What started out as a potentially nicely nasty black comedy ends up being much closer to a standard crude and sexist male farce with an artificial overlay of sentimentality. It's always a shame to see talent wasted, but that's what you get here. Hopefully Hollywood will eventually grow out of its current juvenile male period - especially given the ever-increasing body of evidence showing how having strong female characters helps films at the box office. But you know...I'm not gonna hold my breath waiting.

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