I’m gonna try and keep this one short. This is a damned funny film, albeit one that makes some questionable choices and which treads a fine line between having a heart and falling into sentimentality. I’m not totally sure which side it falls on. But I can’t deny that I was laughing most of the time, and I’d like to see Jason Bateman try his hand at directing again.
Guy Trilby (Bateman) is a middle-aged, middle-school dropout who works as a proofreader and, possibly because of this, is a whiz at spelling. He exploits a loophole in the rules of local spelling bees–since he has never graduated the 8th grade, he is technically eligible, and despite the wrath of parents and bee coordinators, he wins the opportunity to go to the Golden Quill national bee, with reporter Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn) in tow. Her employers are sponsoring Guy’s trip in exchange for an interview, but he is resistant to her questioning–and, in fact, to most forms of social interaction, responding with disinterest at best, and savage vulgarity at worst.
The director of the Golden Quill bee (Allison Janney), tries to force Guy out of the competition, going so far as to quarter him in the host hotel’s supply closet, but he is undeterred. As the bee progresses, Guy uses various psychological tricks (many quite cruel) to trip up his opponents, and weathers all manner of scorn. All the while, the bright, persistent contestant Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand) attempts to win Guy over as a friend, and gradually succeeds–whilst Guy blithely corrupts the young boy with alcohol and other forms of mischief.
Jenny, frustrated with Guy’s refusal to open up, digs into his past, ultimately discovering the truth behind Guy’s ambitions–as Guy progresses without fail to the final rounds.
I forewent a detailed synopsis because the pleasure of Bad Words lies less in its story and more in the depths to which Guy will sink to win the bee–or just to rid himself of someone who annoys him. Andrew Dodge’s script shines in this regard, and Bateman’s performance does it justice: Guy is a fountain of misanthropy, misogyny, racism, and profanity, and when he’s on the attack, it’s rarely less than hysterical. There’s a fascination in his single-minded arrogance–he’s like a Ayn Rand hero, only nihilistic instead of idealistic–and when the film delves into his past and he shows his softer side, some of the edge is lost. While revelations were to be expected (though a more ambiguous conclusion would hardly have been unwelcome), the film does feel just a bit defanged in the third act.
Still, Dodge writes a good dark comedy script (his next project is about a man pretending to be a leprechaun, and it’s starring Peter Dinklage…I’m in), and if the characters beyond Guy and Chaitanya are fairly flat, it’s generally not to the film’s detriment. The leads give the film enough juice to make it work.
Bateman seems to really relish the role, taking his standard priggish-everyman persona and layering a deep-burning misanthropy on it, while making the tender side of the character work nearly as well–his chemistry with Chand really helps in that regard–and as a director, he shows a decent eye (there are few nicely composed shots) and a fairly sure hand.
Chand is absolutely delightful, taking what could have been a standard prodigy role and giving it so much life that it works. He’s believably nerdy, yet with the right sense of adventure that would send him capering into the night with Guy. Given that American child performances are rather hit-and-miss, it’s reassuring to see a young performer this skilled and enthusiastic.
Hahn is stuck with an underwritten character–as much time is spent on Guy and Jenny’s twisted sexual relationship as on anything else about her–but Hahn is good enough to hold her own. Janney and Philip Baker Hall (who plays the huffy Dr. Bowman, president of the Golden Quill Society (I think)) are amusing, despite their relatively limited characters; Janney’s waspish insults and Hall’s craggy disgust are always fun to watch.
Technically, it’s actually pretty solid. Nothing outstanding, but for a first-time director working on, I’m assuming, a relatively low budget, it’s very smooth indeed.
A couple of issues I feel compelled to mention: the depiction of women may strike some as problematic. Jenny jumps into the sack with Guy repeatedly (a bit of male wish fulfillment?), Dr. Deagan (Janney) is mocked by Guy, who suggests she’s a lesbian, and the mother of one of the contestants (Rachael Harris, I believe) is subjected to coarse remarks about her genitalia. Oh, and one of the contestants is disqualified when she flees the hall in shame after Guy uses ketchup to convince her she’s had her first period. Guy’s loathsomeness is a pretty integral part of the film, but some may find these moments gratuitous.
Also gratuitous, and more troubling because it could have been easily avoided, is the fact that the only woman of color in the film who has any speaking lines is a prostitute named Marzipan (Kimleigh Smith), whom Guy hires to flash Chaitanya (he tells her he has the same disease that stunted Gary Coleman’s growth). I don’t think Bateman and co. meant to be racist (I don’t think Guy is necessarily being racist here), but it’s a moment that I can see upsetting quite a few people.
These issues, and my issues with the film’s ultimate mild lapse into conventionality, make Bad Words a tricky film to grade. On one hand, it makes some questionable choices that might offend some viewers. On the other hand, it’s about a manifestly offensive individual. On one hand, it comes dangerously close to sentimentality and has a rather unoriginal revelation at its climax. On the other hand, I was laughing my ass off most of the time.
Ultimately, I give it an “at your own risk” recommendation. If you like this kind of humor, you’ll probably be willing to forgive it its lapses. If not…you’ll be pretty unhappy.