Contestant, your word is Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanicconiosis… Good luck. Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Rohan Chand and Allison Janney star in Jason Bateman’s directorial debut, Bad Words.
Director – Jason Bateman
Screenplay – Andrew Dodge
Producer – Jason Bateman, Mason Novick, Sean McKittrick & Jeff Culotta
Rated R for crude and sexual content, language and brief nudity
Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) is a 40-year old middle school dropout, who has found a loophole in the rulebook of The Golden Quill national spelling bee tournament that allows him to participate. Whether it’s the contest officials, Dr. Bowman (Philip Baker Hall) and Dr. Bernice Deagan (Allison Janney), the contestants’ parents, or the contestants themselves, none are a match for Guy and his no holds barred approach.
With reporter Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn) trying to crack whatever motivation there is to him and young, Indian contestant Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand) – completely unfazed by the things Guy says and does – taking a liking to him and creating an unlikely alliance together, Guy takes the spelling bee world by storm.
Believe it or not, I won my class spelling bee back in 6th grade. Luckily, the smug teacher’s pet in my class everyone expected to win was already out. It was just me and one other left. She went up and spelled her word: vietnam (coincidentally, her mom was judging the event). I went up, capitalized the first letter of the Southeast Asian country as it should be and took home the prize.
I walked down the stage quietly, with dignity. Inside, though, my mind was telling all my classmates to suck it.
For the past decade or so, Jason Bateman has been an in-demand comic presence, most notably known for his work on TV’s Arrested Development. Following the series, he’s managed to gain success in film, mostly in supporting roles, but as of the past few years, he’s been able to land lead roles, some that work (Extract, Horrible Bosses) and some that don’t (The Change-Up, Identity Thief). With Bad Words, it not only lands him another opportunity as lead, it also marks his debut as director.
As Guy Trilby, Bateman plays against the type he’s made a career out of as the comedy straight man. Trilby’s foul-mouthed, offensive, and is willing to hit below the belt when it comes to competing against the other preteen contestants. Thanks to Andrew Dodge’s irreverent script and Bateman’s deft, deadpan comic timing, Bad Words provides a good deal of laughs for those that are into offbeat and offensive humor. Typically, characters that are unlikeable for most of the film are hard to make work, particularly when the film’s resting on their shoulders. Trilby’s the type of role that requires a talent like Bateman to make as effective as he does. Some may find the cruelty against the spelling bee kids off-putting (one scene involving a girl contestant and some ketchup on a chair), but I gotta say they were the funniest moments of the film.
I know. I’m gonna be a dick father someday.
Playing opposite Bateman is newcomer Rohan Chand as the fellow contestant that wants to be friends so bad with Trilby. For being a child actor, Chand comes off as a natural up against Bateman, and even though there is a cliched trouble-making montage between the two of them (that seems to be somewhat pointless considering it doesn’t lead to any consequence whatsoever), they have good chemistry together, and Chand manages to get a few scene-stealing moments here and there.
The remaining supporting cast is really where the flaws within the film come out to play. Kathryn Hahn is definitely talented, and was one of the few things about the not-so-funny We’re the Millers I did find funny. Although she does share a few good moments with Bateman, her character mostly comes off a bit thin, and for writing a piece on Trilby that she seems so invested in (she’s paying for his lodging, meals, etc. while he competes), her motivation for it is unclear and over the course of the film, the story appears to get swept under the rug. Character actor Philip Baker Hall is always dependable onscreen, yet his character’s involved in a character change within Trilby that’s more forced and contrived for the sake of wrapping the film up than genuine, and unfortunately, Allison Janney – who can normally steal a scene with ease – is somewhat wasted in a bland sorta antagonist role as the one trying to bring Trilby down.
That said, in spite of the plot holes and the few thinly written supporting characters, I still found myself laughing, thanks mostly to Bateman, Chand and some hilariously offensive spelling bee competitions. To his credit, Bateman never over-directs here, and with a running time of just under 90 minutes keeps things moving smoothly. It’s not quite as effective of a debut like Joseph Gordon-Levitt had with Don Jon, but Bateman keeps things simple here, which at least shows me it wasn’t an effort wasted.
Bad Words at times tries to be like a much better, similarly themed movie, Bad Santa, in that it wants to be an offensive comedy with heart. It’s not as great as Bad Santa was, yet while the script has its flaws and contrivances, it still got me to laugh, so I can kinda forgive it. Bateman is terrific as the biggest jackass to ever spell absquatulate correctly and Rohan Chand is equally funny as his little persistent sidekick. If you’ve ever seen an actual televised spelling bee, it kinda makes me wish they had a few Guy Trilby’s to spice the event up.
I may be alone with that one.
I give Bad Words a B (★★★).