It’s good to see Jason Bateman in something offbeat and worthwhile, like Juno and Disconnect, instead of the stupid trash he’s usually attracted to, like Identity Thief. In Bad Words, an aggressively nasty and particularly foul-mouthed vehicle which he also produced and directed, he plays a weirdo named Guy Trilby, a misanthropic 40-year-old vulgarian who disrupts the tradition of national spelling bees for elementary-school youngsters by entering the competition himself. The reason for this assault on a national institution that bewilders his pint-size fellow competitors and enrages their parents is a secret that takes the film’s entire running time to reveal, but although the going is so sluggish at times that the film often looks like it needs artificial respiration, stick it out. The end result is oddly entertaining.
Bad Words ★★★
Written by: Andrew Dodge
Guy manages to crash the contest by discovering a loophole in the event regulations that allows anyone admission as long as they never completed the eighth grade. Guy’s exceptional I.Q. made regular schooling a bore, so he dropped out early to tramp his way through life as a dedicated rebel, ending up at the time of the Golden Quill National Spelling Bee working in a dead-end job as a proofreader of product warranties. His goal now is to win the regionals and reach the final round of the $50,000 contest in Los Angeles. His allies are an oversexed lady journalist, who services him in bed (Kathryn Hahn), and a precocious 9-year-old Indian speller named Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), who attaches himself as a protégé, nicknamed Slumdog.
Among the hurdles are an army of murderous mothers and all of the stuffy officials of the spelling bee, including the vicious tournament director (Allison Janney), who assigns him to a hotel closet with no sink, toilet or bathtub. Undeterred, he presses on, insulting and offending everyone with a barrage of inappropriate cusswords. No matter how many times he raids Slumdog’s minibar for booze or tells him to “shut your curry hole,” the inevitable sweetness and charm between the mismatched sidekicks as they face the challenges of spelling words such as “floccinaucinihilipilification” leads to a disappointing sentimentality in the final credo soft as custard. You don’t know until the last scene why Trilby entered the tournament in the first place or what the true nature of the character behind his crude display of acerbic, uncensored vulgarity really is.
Still, Bad Words offers its share of pleasures. The bitchy wit in Andrew Dodge’s screenplay is as startling as it is raunchy, and playing against type, Mr. Bateman services it without genial compromise, displaying a fine sense of comic timing, unafraid of risking offense by freely dispensing racist remarks toward grownups and children alike, admirably resisting the easy temptations to milk audience sympathy by acting cute. I didn’t buy the shock effects he uses in front of a national television audience, but for the most part, I liked him, warts and all, because of the actor’s own natural charm (aptly revealed when he takes the boy on a raucous night on the town before the big event).
Ms. Janney’s hostility as the anally retentive official is another feather in her treasure chest of colorful movie caricatures, and Philip Baker Hall lends staunch support as the sourpuss patriarch of the Golden Quill spelling bees whose identity signifies the key to unlocking the film’s mystery. An uneven script and a redemption finale that does not totally convince contribute to a lack of complete originality and freshness, but Bad Words is short enough to pass the time painlessly. For his directorial debut, Mr. Bateman acquits himself nicely, promising even better things to come.