This weekend marks the release of two films I had reasonably high hopes for, due to their lead actors. Unfortunately, the highest of hopes can be dashed by harsh realities, and the ugly truth about the new chase thriller “Need for Speed” and the vile new comedy “Bad Words” is that they are truly awful rather than awesome.
In fact, they’re so bad that they almost made me decide to quit reviewing movies and seek a new career path. Even when watching them for free, and getting paid to share my thoughts on them, some movies just aren’t worth seeing. And so I urge you to do anything else this weekend: plant a garden, call your mother, volunteer to do roadside cleanup on the highway.
So why am I so outraged?
“Need for Speed” marks the first movie-star role for Aaron Paul, who won two Emmys for his portrayal of Jesse Pinkman in the groundbreaking TV series “Breaking Bad.” Here, he plays Tobey Marshall, an ace car mechanic in a small, New York town who lost his girlfriend to Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), a smug jerk who has easy money that enables him to own several cars worth over a million dollars.
Dino hires Tobey’s crew to rebuild an extremely rare muscle car in order to resell it for more than $2 million, but when Tobey becomes sarcastic with Dino, Dino proposes a race between himself, Tobey and Tobey’s younger brother using Dino’s best three cars. If Tobey wins, he wins the entire $2.7 million the rebuilt car sold for, and if he loses he has to give up his $500,000 rebuilding fee.
This reckless race results in Pete crashing, burning and dying. Because Dino didn’t stop to help save Pete from burning to death, Tobey wants revenge for his callousness. But then he finds that Dino has set him up to take the blame – including prison time – for the entire race and Pete’s death.
When he gets out of jail two years later, Tobey resolves to clear his name and beat Dino in the world’s most lucrative illegal race. In that race, seven drivers compete and the one who wins gets all the other cars, and the losers all go home without their beloved cars. Tobey wants to win the race for honor but also win Dino’s car by beating him.
I can’t believe that I’ve just spent four paragraphs explaining this movie, because the movie’s actual script probably doesn’t include four paragraphs – or even four lines – of coherent writing in it. The characters are virtually indistinguishable from each other, and everyone from the ostensibly heroic Tobey to the evil Dino is an unmitigated and selfish jerk, recklessly driving in chase after chase scene that in the real world would leave hundreds, if not thousands, of other innocent drivers and bystanders dead.
Add in the movie’s incredible lack of logic, which is rampant throughout. Tobey is supposed to be broke and desperate for the $500,000 payment when he agrees to refurbish the car for his enemy, Dino, yet his team has the ability to use portable radar systems (not radar speed guns but actual radar screens!) and a helicopter just to watch and warn Tobey of other drivers’ locations in a street race with a mere $5,000 prize.
Or take in the fact that in a movie like this, every car except the one driven by the hero is guaranteed to be destroyed by the end of the movie. Therefore, if every opponent’s car is going to be a smoking hulk by the end of the climactic winner-take-all race, then what on earth is the winner even competing for? The right to keep seven other destroyed race cars on blocks in his front yard?
There are no funny lines, no likable characters, and very little believable action in “Need for Speed,” and to make it worse, the misery drags on for well over two hours. More like a need for editing, writing, three-dimensional acting, quality direction and entertainment.
Meanwhile, “Bad Words” has its own set of problems. While “Need for Speed” finds fun in recklessly endangering the lives of innocent bystanders, “Bad Words” traffics in mean-spirited tricks – often involving crude and sexual humor – that are perpetrated by a grown man against young children.
“Bad” follows the antics of Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman), who is about to turn 40 and has been motivated by revenge and hatred his whole life, secretly detesting his father for abandoning him as a young boy. He hatches a plan, twisting loopholes in the rules of the national spelling bee that allow anyone under age 40 who has not finished 8th grade studies to enter the competition.
At first, he makes it into local-level bees and wins, but when the bee’s organizers find a way to ban him after all, Guy teams up with a 10 year old Indian boy named Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), helping him gain confidence and fight off bullies by playing a string of nasty pranks on the kids so that they will quit and Chaitanya can rise to the top and win a $50,000 prize they will then split.
The real reason that Guy wants to use the spelling bee to gain revenge on his father is that his father invented the spelling bee. If he can humiliate his father on the national news via his crass and rude behavior, Guy believes he will finally be happy. By the end, he has never redeemed himself nor learned anything.
“Bad Words” could have been so much better, especially considering that it was a popular sensation in last year’s Sundance Film Festival. The idea of a grown man taking on children in a spelling bee could be fresh and amusing in the right hands, and Bateman has built a long career as one of comedy’s top stars. But even aside from being unbelievably obscene frequently, the fact that actual children were allowed to star in a movie that includes such utterly reprehensible and mean-spirited humor throughout is shocking.
In making his debut as director as well as star, Bateman can’t even find an appropriate pace for the film, which drags when it needs to zip and has a terrible score that ruins the background of numerous scenes. From its utter amorality through its sociopathic lead character, on down to its failures of pacing and tone and the sheer wonder of wondering who would allow their kids to act in this movie. “Bad Words” is a bad time at the movies and bad for anyone’s soul.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.