A film review by Craig J. Koban April 4, 2014 

BAD WORDS jjj
½ 

2014, R, 88 mins.

 

Jason Bateman as Guy Trilby  /  Kathryn Hahn as Jenny Widgeon  /  Allison Janney as Dr. Bernice Deagan  /  Philip Baker Hall as Dr. Bowman  /  Rohan Chand as Chaitainya  /  Ben Falcone as Pete Fowler  /  Patricia Belcher as Ingrid  /  Beth Grant as Irene  /  

Directed by Jason Bateman  /  Written by Andrew Dodge

BAD WORDS is arguably the only potty-mouthed, hard R-rated comedy that I’ve ever seen about the world…of academic spelling bees.  

It marks the directorial debut of star Jason Bateman, a wholeheartedly underrated actor that I’ve admired for quite some time, mostly because he has a matchless ability at ultra dry sarcasm and understated deadpan wit that usually makes a mockery of just about anyone he shares a scene with.  He leads his considerable comic skills and timing rather well to BAD WORDS, playing a 40-year-old genius and misanthrope that – via a very odd loophole – manages to find himself participating in the aforementioned bee, all while taking great relish in eviscerating his pre-pubescent competition.  Not only does Bateman prove himself to be a star here, but he further demonstrates a real affinity as a filmmaker as well. 

Bateman plays Guy Trilby, a toxically cranky SOB if there ever was one.  He’s the kind of unmitigated jerk that hurtles stinging insults at anyone and everyone – even innocent children aren’t free from his verbal crosshairs – just because they occupy the same space as he does.  When we are introduced to him in the film he’s apparently on some sort of self-anointed mission (with motives not initially made specific) to mop the floor with his much younger competition at a series of spelling bees.  Now, yes, he is an adult and should have no reasonable access to such events, but the very shrewd Guy discovers that anyone can participate if they haven’t completed the ninth grade by a specific date, a condition that he surprisingly falls under.  Alas, Guy’s ace up his sleeve is that he has four decades of life experience (not to mention a photographic memory) under his belt, which certainly gives him an unfair advantage over kids.  Alas, rules are rules, and Guy takes great delight in using them to their fullest. 

 

 

With a reporter (the sublime Kathryn Hahn) following him to cover his highly unique story, Guy then decides to take on the very prestigious National Quill Spelling Bee, which makes the bee’s acting director (Allison Janney) more than a bit perturbed.  The chairman of the bee (a wonderful Phillip Baker Hall) also displays grave misgivings at the sight of an adult participating in a nationally televised bee that will be seen by millions.  Nevertheless, nothing stops Guy from becoming a legal participant, but while he keeps his eyes on the ultimate prize he is befriended by a fellow 10-year-old competitor, Chaitainya Chopra (Rohan Chand, a wonderfully nuanced and poised child actor) that wishes to make friends with Guy, even when he throws out racist insults at the poor kid.  Yet, the more time he spends with Chaitainya – a child with an unendingly rosy disposition that stands up to him – the more Guy takes a fondness for him.  By the time the film winds to an inevitable conclusion that will pit the pair against each other in the bee, dark secrets of Guy’s past emerge that highlight his real motives for participating.  

Considering the subject matter, BAD WORDS is – as its title implicitly promises – unapologetically crude and sinfully profane, which is not really the type of film that a first time director out to prove himself would ultimately choose.  The subtle genius of Andrew Dodge’s script is that very little attempts at all are made to make Guy even remotely likeable as a character.  He’s simply an asshole.  Men, women, and children of just about any race fall victim to his merciless zingers (“Your chair called me for help,” he tells an obese spelling bee contestant at one point).  Beyond that, Guy seems to possess a festering hatred of all people in general that hints towards some deep psychological scarring.  Yet, Bateman as an actor miraculously makes Guy a paradoxically endearing character because of how uncensored and hostile he is.  As the plot progresses and we learn the reasons behind his inner pains we even begin to feel pity for the loser.  Very few films – and performances for that matter – have made such a reprehensible human being so identifiable and relatable.   

Bateman is paired rather well with Hahn in many scenes, who matches her co-star and director’s tenacity; they occupy one sex scene in particular - that showcases Hahn’s animalistic need for Guy to never look her in the face while doing the deed – that’s a comic gem.  The real coup de grace of the film is the casting of Rohan Chand as Chaitainya, whom outwardly is such an adorable and sweet mannered kid that seems to be one of the few people that can give and take with the uber aggressive Guy and not get easily offended by his vocal abuse (he calls the kid “Slumdog” and even makes reference to his “curry hole” at one point).  Of course, the budding friendship between Guy and Chaitainya goes down some highly predictable paths, but Bateman is cunning enough to not wallow in storytelling clichés, nor does he completely and falsely sugarcoat Guy’s transformation into a “kind” character to make BAD WORDS come off as unnervingly sentimental or heart-warming.  Amazingly, BAD WORDS finds a happy middle ground between being a truly mean-spirited and peculiarly endearing and sweet.  

Everything, of course, builds to the spelling bee itself, and even though it’s painfully preordained which two participants will indeed be on stage battling it out for the grand prize, the script manages to – without giving too much away - come up with a rather ingenious angle to keep both Guy and Chaitainya from winning, which results in some of the film’s best sustained laughs, especially at the expense of audience members’ reactions to the unexpected chaos that ensues.  If there were an element that doesn’t work it would easily be the would-be surprisingly plot twist before the final act that reveals the real impetus for Guy’s seedy undertaking to make a mockery of the spelling bees he participates in.  Smart and attentive viewers should be able to deduce the secret well in advance of it occurring in the film, which really subverts its impact. 

Still, though, BAD WORDS emerges as a deliciously amoral and exuberantly ill-tempered comedy of foul manners that highlights Bateman’s skills both in front of and behind a camera.  He shows a real natural instinct with his actors, but he also manages to sustain the film’s litany of wretched behavior from Guy that, with another actor portraying him, would have made the film unendurable within a few short minutes.  BAD WORDS makes up for its minor scripting hiccups by being riotously hysterical.  I found myself heartily laughing at key scenes and exchanges that I’m kind of ashamed of in retrospect.  Yet, the way that BAD WORDS never takes a comfortable approach with its underlining material is what precisely makes it stand proudly apart from the pack.  And, trust me, you may never look at spelling bees the same way after seeing this film.  It’s like trench warfare. 

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