This one is quite the oddity. Bad Words was written by Andrew Dodge, who doesn’t have a single prior credit on IMDB. After his debut script made the legendary Black List, Jason Bateman picked it up for his directorial debut. Bateman of course needs no introduction, since he’s made quite a name for himself as a comic actor over the past 20 years. As such, it should come as no surprise that Bateman gathered a fine assortment of established character actors for support as he produced, directed, and played the starring role.
And then, somehow, Darko Entertainment got involved. This really threw me for a loop, especially since I couldn’t see Richard “Donnie Darko” Kelly anywhere in the credits. Well, it turns out that Kelly runs Darko Entertainment with Sean McKittrick, here credited as a producer. It seems that Bateman and co-producer Mason Novick (formerly of Juno) approached McKittrick and got him to sign on.
All of this prelude aside, what’s the film about? Well, Bateman plays Guy Trilby, a 40-year-old man who works as a proofreader for warranties. And one day, for no discernible reason, Guy decides to take some time away from work so he can compete in a national spelling bee.
“But wait,” I hear you thinking, “how can a middle-aged man be allowed to compete in a spelling bee for pre-teens?” Well, it turns out that age isn’t strictly a factor of eligibility in this particular competition. Because Guy has somehow reached the age of 40 without passing the eighth grade, he’s technically still eligible to enter this contest. And remember, Guy proofreads warranties for a living. He knows how to weave around complex bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo, and he couldn’t be daunted by the longest or most complex words. In short, he’s the absolute last person you’d want anywhere near a spelling bee. Guy came here to win, breaking the hearts of more deserving teenagers who worked hard just to get to regionals, and he could not give less of a fuck.
It goes without saying that Guy is not a remotely likeable character, and mercifully, the film never asks us to relate to him or root for him. Yet in spite of all that, Guy is delightfully watchable from start to finish.
For one thing, Guy is a linguistic genius. Not only can he spell the most insanely difficult words out there, but he wields insults, swear words, and threats with an agility that I haven’t seen since Malcolm Tucker. More than that, Guy is a crafty motherfucker. He’s whip-smart, capable of manipulating and lying his way out of any situation. This lends a very gripping level of intrigue to the character.
Here you have a guy who’s got unbelievable mastery of the English language, yet he’s an unrepentant prick who never graduated from middle school. Of all the things he could be applying his intellect to, he’s a warranty proofreader who snuck into a spelling bee through a loophole. When you see a guy like that, you just have to ask “Who is he, how did he get here, and what the fuck is he playing at?” Moreover, because Guy is so mysterious and so deceptively clever, there’s never any telling what he’ll do. He is all over the place, and that unpredictable nature makes his hijinks so much fun to watch.
That said, there is a very strong sense that Guy does have a plan. He has a very clear purpose for coming in and beating all these kids at a spelling bee, even if he won’t let anyone know what it is. Additionally, by Guy’s own admission, he’s not a brilliant planner and he’s notoriously bad at thinking things through. This means that Guy only knows what he’s doing up to a point; what happens past that point or if things go wrong is anyone’s guess. And how would you like to be there when it happens?
Perhaps most importantly, there’s the fact that Guy isn’t really in the wrong. He may have beat the system and he may be an insufferable prick, but he still got into the competition fair and square. He is a bona fide competitor, no matter how many students, parents, teachers, spelling bee administrators, and total strangers hate him with a fiery passion for it. Of course, it’s completely understandable why all these people would protest Guy’s involvement and try to get him thrown out. But on the other hand, all their cheating and tantrums accomplish absolutely nothing except make everyone involved look bad. Sure, Guy is embarrassing children and bringing shame to what’s supposedly a respectable competition, but at least he’s doing it in a legitimate manner. When the adults sink to his level, it just adds injury to insult. Especially since Guy is smart, witty, and confident enough to handle anything thrown at him.
If the film has any major theme, it’s the idea that age and maturity don’t always go hand in hand. The whole film is loaded with moments when adults (usually Guy) act like socially incompetent bullies while the kids hold themselves to a higher standard. Even when Guy manipulates his opponents, humiliating them to the point where they drop out, the kids still handle themselves as best they know how. It goes along with the idea of kids getting screwed up by the adults (especially the parents) who surround them, which is another huge theme of the picture.
Though to be clear, these themes are quite subtle. When the film shows adults acting like children, it’s usually in the service of making darkly comedic jokes instead of any big artistic point.
(Side note: It bears remembering that Bateman was a child actor himself back in the day. That was a factor in how he approached this material, we can all be sure.)
That said, we of course need a child character to serve as the film’s heart. Enter Rohan Chand, as the precocious 10-year-old Chaitanya Chopra. He’s a naive kid with mostly absentee parents and he doesn’t have any friends, but he’s so sweet and hard-working andzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…
…Oh, sorry, I fell asleep for a moment there. Suffice to say that he’s the straight-laced kid who gets introduced to all sorts of adult pleasures by our man-child main character. This whole arc is boring. We saw it in Bad Santa, we saw it in Bad Grandpa, we saw it to a lesser degree in Bad Teacher, we’ve seen it all before. It’s a damn shame that the film spent so much screentime on the Guy/Chaitanya relationship, since it was so full of stale jokes and tired story beats that we all know by heart already.
Luckily, there is a twist in this go-round: In spite of everything, Guy and Chaitanya are rivals. They both came here to win, and they both came to destroy each other. When their friendship clashes with their competition and these two very different geniuses try to crush each other, that’s when the subplot finally starts firing on all cylinders. In the third act.
Moving on, I should probably mention the more level-headed main character. Yes, this movie does have a character for the audience to safely relate to, serving as our eyes and ears through the proceedings. See, in order to qualify, Guy needs a sponsorship from a reputable news source. In this case, his sponsor/accomplice/love interest is Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn). Guy gets into the spelling bee, Jenny gets to write and publish a hell of a story, they both get to have sex with each other (and their sex scenes are freaking high-larious), everybody wins. The catch, of course, is that Jenny has a very difficult time writing her story, since Guy is so incredibly tight-lipped about who he is and why he’s doing this. As such, Jenny gets to do some journalistic work and dig around for information about Guy, finding some answers on our behalf.
Unfortunately, though Jenny works very well as an audience surrogate, and Hahn was perfectly cast as a woman right on that edge between awkward and sexy, the Guy/Jenny romance arc doesn’t quite work. We never get a conclusive answer as to how they end up, but it still feels like there’s a vital scene missing to explain how they got to that point.
Allison Janney and Philip Baker Hall are both in this movie, but there isn’t much to say about them. Philip Baker Hall is in a role that requires absolutely nothing from him except to be Philip Baker Hall. As for Allison Janney, her career has gone so far past the point of caring that she seems perfectly content to just show up, play to the cheap seats, and get her paycheck.
Last but not least, how does Bateman do for a first-time director? Well, his sense of comic timing is of course impeccable. The guy also has some serious balls for taking on such raunchy humor, I must give him that. And of course, the casting is flawless from start to finish. However, the film is filled with some questionable shots and camera movements in places. I’m guessing that this had more to do with DOP Ken Seng — previously responsible for Project X, Sorority Row, and The Poker House (*yawn*) — since Bateman probably spent more time on set in front of the camera than behind it.
Bad Words is hardly a flawless movie, but it’s a solid start for Jason Bateman’s directorial career. Everything great about this movie boils down to its raunchy and unpredictable humor, with a sterling cast delivering hilarious jokes from a superbly clever script. This one had me rolling in the aisles, and I can recommend it for that much.