Beware of ex-classmates bearing fish

Joel Edgerton, Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall (from left) in The Gift (photo by Matt Kennedy/STX Productions LLC)
Joel Edgerton, Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall (from left) in The Gift (photo by Matt Kennedy/STX Productions LLC)

By Richard Ades

Joel Edgerton is determined to set our nerves on edge with The Gift, and he succeeds pretty well. The writer/director/co-star knows just how to push the audience’s collective buttons.

The tale revolves around Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall), who no sooner move into their new California home than they run into one of the husband’s old classmates: Gordo. Thanks to Edgerton’s subtly creepy portrayal, we instantly distrust this guy—to the extent that our stomachs tighten a little when Gordo overhears the couple’s new address.

Sure enough, he’s soon showing up unannounced, invariably when Robyn is home alone. Annoyed, Simon recalls that Gordo was always a “weirdo” and suggests that he has the hots for the pretty Robyn. She, on the other hand, thinks he’s just trying to be helpful.

Robyn, as we eventually learn, is not an accomplished judge of character.

As Gordo’s behavior grows more and more erratic, director Edgerton builds tension by supplying a series of shocks constructed in the time-honored fashion: He primes us with scenes of quiet dread followed by a sudden sight or sound. These are fun, especially when experienced with a vulnerable audience.

But Edgerton’s goal ultimately extends beyond eliciting Pavlovian responses. We learn that Simon has more history with Gordo than he’s willing to admit. It’s an ugly history that Simon would like to forget and that Gordo is unable to let go.

Frankly, there’s a bit of a disconnect between the early scenes, with their stock shocks, and the third act, with its unexpected complexity. That’s one of the few signs that this first-time director has more to learn.

A bigger disappointment is that the tale’s female lead is less interesting than her male counterparts.

Edgerton’s Gordo, as stated, is wonderfully creepy, while Bateman’s Simon has a tendency toward ruthlessness that becomes increasingly obvious as the story unfolds. As for Hall’s Robyn, we never quite get a handle on her.

We know she’s an accomplished interior designer, mostly because her husband tells us she is. We also know she has a history of pregnancy-related trauma and addiction. But she mainly comes across as simply a woman in danger—more of a plot device than a flesh-and-blood character.

Hall makes her watchable, but Edgerton’s script fails to make her knowable. The result: Even though The Gift continually scares us and surprises us, it never quite moves us.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

The Gift, rated R, opens Friday (Aug. 7) at theaters nationwide.

How do you spell ‘comedy’? C-R-I-N-G-E

Guy (Jason Bateman) plays mind games with a young competitor in Bad Words (photo by Sam Urdank/Focus Features)
Guy (Jason Bateman) plays mind games with a young competitor in Bad Words (photo by Sam Urdank/Focus Features)

By Richard Ades

Back when I was arts editor for Columbus’s now-defunct The Other Paper, one of our ace critics turned in a review of a horror flick with a grisly scene: The heroes dispatched an attacker by sticking his head in a microwave oven and holding it there until it exploded.

Puzzled, I asked the critic how the filmmakers got around the fact that microwaves don’t work when the door is open. They didn’t care about such technicalities, he replied gleefully. “They just wanted to make someone’s head explode!”

It seems like an odd comparison, but a couple of scenes from Bad Words reminded me of that incident. Smart but antisocial 40-year-old Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) has wormed his way into an adolescent spelling bee, and he proceeds to launch underhanded and exceedingly nasty psychological attacks on two of his competitors in an attempt to undermine their confidence.

Like the microwave offensive, the attacks make no logical sense. First, Guy’s spelling skills are so advanced that the kids pose no real threat to him, so why bother? And second, if his dirty tricks were exposed (and there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t be in the real world), he would be ejected from the competition faster than you can say “antidisestablishmentarianism.”

So why did the filmmakers include the attacks in their sordid comedy? Because, to paraphrase that wise critic, they just wanted to see Guy act mean to two defenseless kids.

Another comparison between the microwave scene and the spelling-bee attacks: You have to have a sadistic streak in order to enjoy them.

Well, maybe that’s too harsh. A cross between 2003’s Bad Santa and the stage musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Bad Words seeks the kind of laughs that grow out of shockingly inappropriate and irresponsible behavior. Now, I’m as susceptible to this kind of comedy as anyone—I loved Bad Santa, for example—but Bad Words inspires more cringes than guffaws.

A key weakness is that scriptwriter Andrew Dodge and first-time director Bateman don’t sufficiently explain Guy’s motivation for crashing a contest that’s meant for kids. We surmise that it has something to do with his own failure as a bee competitor when he was an eighth-grader, and possibly with the recent death of his mother. But when we learn his real reason for entering the contest, it’s hard not to think, “That’s it?” His ultimate goal doesn’t begin to explain his actions.

Another weakness is that, despite its hard-edged sense of humor, the film eventually gets stuck in a sappily predictable rut. As soon as a lonely 10-year-old spelling whiz named Chaitanya Chopra enters the scene and tries his best to befriend the eccentric adult, we know it’s only a matter of time before Guy’s icy heart begins to melt.

If Bad Words remains marginally palatable, it’s due solely to the strength of its able cast. Besides the understated Bateman, the players include Kathryn Hahn as the reporter who sometimes shares Guy’s bed, Allison Janney as an angry bee official and Philip Baker Hall (known to Seinfeld fans as no-nonsense library detective Mr. Bookman) as the bee’s founder. But no one contributes more to the film than young Rohan Chand, who is consistently adorable as the indomitable Chaitanya.

Without Chaitanya’s lovable presence, Bad Words would be simply an exercise in misanthropic excess.

Bad Words opens Friday (March 21) at the Lennox 24.

Rating: 2½ stars (out of 5)