Bad Words (Focus Features)
Rated R for crude and sexual content, language and brief nudity.
Starring Jason Bateman, Allison Janney, Kathryn Hahn, Rohan Chand, Rachael Harris, Ben Falcone, Judith Hoag, Beth Grant, Philip Baker Hall, Patricia Belcher, Anjul Nigam, Michael Patrick, Bob Stephenson, Steve Witting, Greg Cromer.
Written by Andrew Dodge.
Directed by Jason Bateman.
In the 4th grade, I won a class spelling bee. It was a pretty big deal, since I struggled with other subjects, and was perhaps one of the reasons I went into journalism, preferring the written word over numbers and such. All that spelling glory is in the past, and several ‘typos’ later, it doesn’t remain as my crowning achievement. Letting go of one’s childhood trauma is the backdrop for Bad Words, a film starring and directed by Jason Bateman – about a man who uses a spelling competition to get even.
Bateman plays Guy Trilby, a middle-aged, mean-spirited and amoral fellow who knows how to spell just about every word in the unabridged dictionary. Guy also finds a loophole in the “Golden Quill” organization’s bylaws that will allow him to compete nationally televised spelling contest alongside children. By “compete,” I really mean “annihilate,” which usually comes with a lion’s share of humiliation for the kids and their families. Needing a media sponsor, Guy employs Jenny Widgeon, editor and owner of an obscure news website, who hopes to get a big scoop in publishing the adult spelling wonder’s story.
Guy makes a lot of enemies in his ascension to the finals, including competitors, their parents, spelling fans and especially the Golden Quill folks. The organization’s president Dr. Bowman (Philip Baker Hall) has to allow Guy into the competition, while the Golden Quill director Dr. Bernice Deagan (Allison Janney) looks for ways to get him out.
As the final spelling round draws near, Guy engages in a few sexual trysts with Jenny – and a friendship with one of his fellow competitors – an adorable Indian-descent boy named Chaitanya (Rohan Chand).
In the finals, Guy must decide whether to annihilate Chaitanya or stick to his original revenge plans.
Bad Words is a movie that lives up to its name, with a lot – and I do mean a LOT of bad language. Bateman weaves a tapestry of obscenity that would make Quentin Tarantino blush. Most of that vitriol is saved for kids and their parents in the movie, which makes for a lot of “I shouldn’t be laughing at this” moments. To be sure, Bateman’s dialogue is funny – if you can look past the awkward reality of all the kids appearing onscreen with him as he utters some of the nastiest things you might only read on the walls of a truck stop restroom.
Bad Words succeeds in offering a forum for Bateman’s unique talent of spinning some very funny, albeit acerbic dialogue (did I mention the dirty language?), but fails when it abandons the idea of being an irreverent comedy and aspires for something a little more sappy.
Bateman also shows promise as a director, but it would be interesting to see what he could do without directing himself.