Lake Titicaca is my personal favorite…
Due to a loophole in the rulebook, seemingly misanthropic 40-year-old Guy Trilby enters the national Golden Quill Spelling Bee, despite the disgust and hatred of the bee’s officials, participants, and parents. Will his reluctantly budding friendship with 10-year-old competitor Chaitanya Chopra disrupt Guy’s plan for complete domination?
After watching the trailers, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Bad Words is just another pale imitator of the increasingly appreciated Bad Santa. You’ve got a vulgar grown man with plenty of lessons to be learned and a wide-eyed innocent child with the capacity to teach those very same lessons. In reality, however, Jason Bateman’s directorial debut has a lot more to offer than what the trailers’ editors, who are admittedly just doing their job of trying to sell tickets, would have you believe.
First and foremost, perhaps the wisest decision made by Bateman and his screenwriter Andrew Dodge is to keep Guy’s motivations behind his plan as much a mystery to the audience as it is to the characters onscreen. Most normal people would not be able to handle the constant ridicule and vile spit out at him as a result of the decisions that he makes, but Guy continues on, fazed but determined. By letting us know that his reasons go much further than just puerile chaos (although, there is plenty of that as well), but keeping us in the dark as to what exactly they are, it creates more of an investment for the audience than just watching a string of vulgar gags. It adds an element of mystery.
Additionally, the filmmakers are smart to not spend a whole lot of time going into great detail regarding the loophole that Guy has found that allows him to compete. We get it out of the way in the opening minutes of the film and, from that point on, it is accepted as infallible fact by the characters and, by proxy, the audience. Some may complain that it seems implausible, but, right as they may be, it really doesn’t matter. With the limited amount of information we are given, it makes sense, and it was the right decision to not open this plot point up to that level of scrutiny. Just go with it.
The “detective” in the mystery story is a reporter played ably by an underutilized Kathryn Hahn. Dividing her time between gal Friday, snooping journalist, and confidant with benefits, the always-funny Hahn provides a nice anchor for the lunacy, but rarely gets the chance to show off her own comedic chops. She’s given one particular quirk-for-laughs that she is able to work with, but it feels a bit shoehorned in just because it’s the kind of bit that she normally excels in.
Bateman pulls double duty here, directing himself in the lead performance. He gives Guy just the right amount of smarminess, mixed with determination and bile. He doesn’t so much grow as a character through the piece, but rather we, the audience, learn that there’s always been much more than meets the eye. It’s not easy for an antihero who does such reprehensible things to hold favor with the viewers (some of his tactics during the bee itself will test your ability to stay loyal to your central character), but Bateman was the perfect choice here. He’s matched well by Rohan Chand as the child who forces his way into Guy’s life. Chand is a real find, without the usual precociousness that goes along with a part like this. Even the requisite “child cursing” scenes that inevitably pop up don’t feel as if they are just used for cheap laughs. They feel earned. There are also great, but all-too-brief, supporting turns by Alison Janney, Philip Baker Hall, Rachael Harris, and Steve Witting (Hogan Family reunion!).
As a director, Bateman handles his first feature like an old pro, but the film lacks a unifying central visual motif (other than the genius conceit of the televised bee) that would have pushed it over the edge. As it stands, it’s still a far above-average comedy that is able to mix a bit of drama without ever stooping to the final act over-maudlin character redemption that a film like this normally does in its (and our) sleep. On the surface, it seems like just another comedy peppered with vulgarity, and a pinch of sweetness, but there’s a lot more going on. Sure, there are a couple of subplots that we may have appreciated some more time with (in particular, involving Chaitanya’s family), but what we get is a cut above most of the rest. Bad Words is a very lean, fast-moving 88 minutes, so perhaps their excision was the right move.
JASON’S FINAL THOUGHTS:
Bateman found a perfect vehicle for his directorial debut and his team knocks it almost all the way out of the park. They’ve found a way to make the impossible possible – making a televised spelling bee highly watchable, outside of your own child’s involvement. I can only imagine that after seeing this film, the people at Scripps are frantically dissecting their own rulebooks to find similar weaknesses that need a bit of an update.
Review by Lead Writer and Film Critic, Jason Howard