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The jerk returns to the screen with mean mouth blazing

MoviesFilm FestivalsJason BatemanMichael CeraSundance Film FestivalMelissa McCarthy

In his new rapid-fire spelling-bee comedy, "Bad Words," Jason Bateman opens his mouth in more ways than one. When a young Indian boy is talking too much, his 40-year-old spelling-bee contestant, Guy Trilby, tells the boy to "point his curry hole" in another direction. When a chubby kids calls him a weirdo, he fires back, "Your chair called me for help."

Some of his vicious quips are funny; others less so. But the pleasures in "Bad Words" aren't the jokes themselves. It's the idea of the jokes — or, more specifically, the idea that someone can make jokes that others won't. For all the film's stabs at humor, it rests on a single comedic premise: a man who speaks his unexpurgated mind.

Characters in Judd Apatow, Todd Phillips, Farrelly brothers and Adam Sandler movies — not to mention W.C. Fields long before — have been indulging their id for years, doing the outrageous in pursuit of a reaction. But despite their startling, often ribald pronouncements, most have been drawing between the lines; for the modern filmmakers and stars, at least, their humor may be frequently scatological but hardly shocking, little more provocative than what you might hear on an FM morning-radio show.

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Bateman, though, is different. His Guy Trilby character is doing something more subtle by doing something more explicit. He's saying what people really feel, or at least what someone with impulses like this really feels.

You don't have to look too hard to see that "Bad Words"--which Bateman directed from a script by Andrew Dodge--isn't the only example. It's one of several movies to offer an emerging comedic archetype that might be called the male jerk hero.

In "Crystal Fairy," Sebastian Silva's Chilean road-trip comedy released last year, Michael Cera is seeking an elusive hallucinogenic plant as he opens up a can of obnoxiousness on any and all he meets — inviting a woman on a road trip and then disinviting her after she accepts.

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Meanwhile, the Sundance Film Festival this year saw the debut of Alex Ross Perry's "Listen Up Philip." Ross Perry has been doing this kind of hatred-for-humanity thing for a while — in the words of the critic Todd McCarthy, "a cinematic quest to test the limits of just how far you can take the obnoxious misanthropy of your leading characters" — and in "Philip" he has upped the ante. Jason Schwartzman, playing a Philip Roth-like novelist with what might be called insecure smarm, continually berates the very people he should be nice to.

Jonah Hill has been going into male-jerk territory for some time too. Most recently, though, he went all in with his turn as Donny Azoff in "The Wolf of Wall Street," in which he said things that, if they ever were on anyone else's mind, no one else would dare speak. (Ditto for his "I'm 6" skits on "Saturday Night Live," in which he would say the most offensive thing in mixed company and justify it by being merely in first grade.)

This isn't entirely new, of course, with the grouchy wit an occasional presence on the screen. Billy Bob Thornton in "Bad Santa" is an obvious precursor, and Larry David has been doing a version of this on "Curb Your Enthusiasm" for years. Carroll O'Connor is perhaps the most famous male jerk hero of all in American comedy with his role as Archie Bunker on "All in the Family," even if he and David emphasized the grouch more than the wit. But so many male jerk heroes have never appeared at once, and certainly rarely manifest their jerkiness as eye-poppingly directly.

These guys, it should be said, also aren't that other new archetype, the antihero. They're not Walt White. They very much want to be the hero. They just have a really odd way of getting there.

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So where is all this coming from? Susan Faludi, the author of "Stiffed," has argued that movies like "Rambo" are a response to a feeling of a larger masculine disempowerment, and it's hard not to see some of these as the verbal equivalent, the rat-a-tat-tat of Bateman's mouth a locutional equivalent of Stallone's gun. "Bad Words" and "Listen Up Philip" may do their damage with a quip instead of a weapon, but it's no less brutal and coming from no more secure a place.

In that sense, the antecedent is less other comedies but more the action movies (they also include "Beverly Hills Cop" and most of the oeuvre of Charles Bronson) that have centered on men outside the system, looking to regain power their own lives don't provide.

Like those films, there's an easy appeal. "Bad Words" and its ilk offer a kind of license for dubious behavior, however indirectly. Consider Hill's Azoff, who when confronted with a puzzled question from Leonardo DiCaprio's Jordan Belfort about whether Azoff is in fact married to his own cousin, offers this perfectly convoluted piece of male-jerk logic.

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In précis, "We grew up together and she grew up hot … and all my friends are trying to … And I'm not gonna let one of these … So I used the cousin thing as, like, an in, with her." He concludes, "If anyone's gonna … my cousin, it's gonna be me. Out of respect."

It's not just that there's a free-speaking obliviousness to the monologue, or even that it flirts with a taboo like incest. (Or, for that matter, that it's hilarious.) It's that there's a perverse moral logic as to why he did it. The bit may be absurdist, but the subtle effect is to offer a kind of identifiably contorted justification for any of us who have ever had a less than morally acceptable urge.

But filmmakers say the archetype may be more the result of their own frustration. I asked "Bad Words'" writer Dodge about this, and he said these characters are a response of sorts to the straitjacketing effect of corporate Hollywood  "I think comedies have gotten a little vanilla, we're so afraid of offending, so this is  a reaction to that." He says that with executives less willing to take risks, "it makes independent filmmakers" — Dodge wrote "Bad Words" as a spec, and it bounced around Hollywood for years — "more willing to be bold." The writer knew he had done something outside the box when one studio executive told him, 'This is funny, but could Guy start helping the kids in the third act?"

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Dodge adds that, as fun as it can be to observe, it's not exactly easy to write the male jerk. "It's super hard to do. You have to make a character likable enough that you still want to watch him but hateful enough that it's still funny."

It's fair in all this to ask where women fit in. And the truth is that--for better or worse--they haven't been given the same types of characters on screen. Though they are supposedly given parts in which they can be the honest, emotionally expressive ones, women in modern comedies will say what's on their characters' minds only in the relatively safe confines of areas like relationships and domesticity (or, if you're Melissa McCarthy, the bro-like realms of bodily functions); if a filmmaker put a woman in the Guy Trilby role, I suspect we'd never hear the end of it.

So is this archetype, you know, good for movies? Well, that depends on whom you ask the question — and, maybe, when you ask it.

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O'Connor's Bunker was at first rejected by some but eventually regarded as offering a sly condemnation of racism. Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat character, who flirts with his own kind of jerk (or at least foolish) humor, sometimes seems to be inviting laughter at the object of the bigotry as much as the subject. Bateman has similarly generated a debate about this with "Bad Words"; "no one escapes Guy's racist, homophobic, misogynistic wrath," writes Christy Lemire on Rogerebert.com, noting that "Guy's shtick is just plain mean in a way that becomes dull and repetitive as he dares us to tolerate him."

In an era when an abundance of cable shows have made us skeptical of sweetness, the male jerk character allows directors to get away with a happy ending, or at least a happier one. If we're laughing at acid humor for 90 minutes, we can take a little saccharine in the last 10. Indeed, Bateman's Guy shows a softer side, and Cera's Jamie learns a lesson too. Said Silva at the Sundance Film Festival when "Crystal Fairy" premiered, "For me what's most important is the lesson Jamie learns in crying for somebody else's pain."

But while there may well be some catharsis for these characters at the end, for much of the audience, the release comes at a different time--the minute these characters open their mouths.

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

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MoviesFilm FestivalsJason BatemanMichael CeraSundance Film FestivalMelissa McCarthy
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