Rated R for crude and sexual content, language and brief nudity
Cast: Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Rohan Chand, Phillip Baker Hall, Ben Falcone, Steve Witting and Allison Janney
Written By: Andrew Dodge
Directed By: Jason Bateman
Bad Santa, Bad Teacher, Bad Grandpa… all movies in which an authority figure who should by all accounts be a role model, but is actually a crass, profanity spewing ne’er-do-well who teaches young children to enthusiastically take on these characteristics. Now we have Bad Words. No, Jason Bateman’s character is not named Words, but he’s ‘bad’ all the same.
Bad Words, about a 40-year-old man who finds a loophole in the admission rules of a National Spelling Bee and goes on to compete against elementary-schoolers for a $50,000 prize, has a premise that could have been made into a cute family comedy. But Bateman, in his big-screen directorial debut and screenwriter Andrew Dodge, have concocted a mean-spirited, R-rated dark comedy with a slew of vulgarity that lives up to the title. We already knew that Bateman was a talented comedic actor and now he proves to be a gifted filmmaker as well – cleverly shooting this thing in dark muted colors that echo the cinematography of a David Fincher thriller.
The premise is by no means anything new and you can’t help but note the similarities to Bad Santa, so much so that this could almost be a sequel had it starred Billy Bob Thornton, but when a movie is executed well – the originality of its concept hardly matters.
Bateman stars as Guy Trilby, a damaged individual angry at life and the people who inhabit it, whom sets out for vengeance against the establishment. Guy’s intentions begin as a mystery – he’s pessimistic, intensely sardonic and not altogether likable – but as his character and plot points develop, we begin to understand “The Grinch Who Stole the Spelling Bee”. Dodge’s shrewd and funny screenplay slowly unravels the reasons why Guy is doing all of this in the first place (It isn’t for the $50,000) and so the plot holds our interest even while we’re laughing at the gags.
The pinch-hitter and scene stealer of the film is 10-year-old Rohan Chand as Chaitanya Chopra, an Indian wiz-kid who Guy endearingly refers to as “slumdog”. Bateman and Chand share a winning chemistry as the two begin a bond that sets up both a series of edgy comedic set-pieces and a much needed sweet undertone amidst the film’s anarchist attitude. We’re all for this bizarre friendship – after all, if at some point we don’t get behind Bateman’s character, then none of this would work.
It’s hard to hate Guy even when he’s saying some hateful things – and we don’t as we begin to see that his attitude is coming from a place of pain, which the audience will sympathize with and root for him to get past. A very funny montage sequence where Guy bonds with his young ethnic protégé by engaging in bad behavior involving alcohol, hookers and dangerous pranks on the public is somehow oddly sweet in addition to being overtly egregious.
There’s also something of a romance with an online magazine reporter played by Kathryn Hahn who agrees to fund Guy’s travel and hotel costs in return for an interview about the story behind a grown man competing in a child’s spelling bee. Hahn is funny in her off-beat role, nothing like your conventional rom-com love interest, but instead an over-sexed chaperone who eggs on Guy’s behavior.
Conveniently, this also happens to be the first time that the spelling bee is nationally televised, which makes Guy’s participation all the more embarrassing for administrators Dr. Bowman (Phillip Baker Hall) and Dr. Deagan (Allison Janney). Both Hall and Janney do an effective job of playing antagonists to Bateman’s anti-hero.
There are a few pacing issues throughout where the film gets slightly sluggish when its not focused on the essential plot line, but these problems don’t last very long. At under 90 minutes, the film doesn’t quite fly by as it probably should, but when it bounces back to life – all is forgiven.
The third-act finale, which comes down to the final round of the bee, is hugely satisfying and ends things on a very clever high note. Yes, there’s the expected character arc and redemption of Guy, but it doesn’t feel false to his character as his breakthrough still allows him to hold onto his lovingly acerbic mindset.
Bad Words is a funny, sharp and dark comedy that should please fans of the “man-child crudely teaching a child-man his way of life” genre. Even if the concept is old-hat, the film still manages to put an inventive spin on a familiar tune – with likable actors, a clever screenplay and adept directing from producer/star Bateman. In other words, Bad Words is G-O-O-D.