2014, R, 88 mins.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.