Hey, do you like movies that start with “Bad” and are about terrible adults that say crude and awful things to kids? You know, like Bad Santa, Bad Teacher, and Bad Grandpa? Do you still find this kind of thing shocking and hilarious (because it’s so wrong lol!)
Well, you’re in luck because here comes Bad Words about – you guessed it – a terrible adult that says crude and awful things to kids because, just like Santa, teachers, and grandpas, he’s surrounded by them, in a spelling bee! But here’s the twist: he’s a contestant!
Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) is a misanthropic 40 year old professional proofreader who, for his own secret reason, competes in (and wins) grade-school spelling bees. How, you may ask, can a 40 year old be a contestant in grade-school level spelling bees? The answer is simple: plot contrivance. See, there’s a loophole in the official rules that contestants must not have graduated eighth grade, which Guy hasn’t (how he got that professional proofreading gig is never explained). Guy makes it all the way to the national Golden Quill championship, which as luck would have it, is being aired live on television for the first time ever! What are the chances that the one year there is a foul-mouthed adult in the running that the contest would be aired on TV? And live?
Of course the Golden Quill officials (Philip Baker Hall and an unforgivably thanklessly used Allison Janney) are none too happy about this and are determined to find a way, any way, to oust Guy from the finals.
Have I mentioned that Guy is a terrible asshole? I did, but it needs to be repeated. He hates everything and everybody and every slur is included his extensive vocabulary. (Well, not that one, but everything else dammit!) He also has no problem cruelly sabotaging his opponents. He doesn’t need to because he has a photographic memory and can spell any word easily so he apparently does it for the sole sake of being mean. He’s just that awful.
Along for the ride is Guy’s sponsor (in addition to not graduating the eighth grade, each contestant must also have media sponsorship) Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), who writes for a website that somehow generates enough money to pay for all of Guy’s expenses. She is hoping to find out, along with the rest of us, what would drive a grown man to possess such a ridiculous goal, especially one that crushes the dreams of innocent, hard-working children and garners the scorn of the public. Guy is a jerk to her too, of course, but that doesn’t stop her from occasionally having sex with him.
“Insult me again baby. Call me hideous and tell me you’d kick my puppy. I’m so turned on right now!”
Because no movie about a seemingly irredeemable prick is complete without a precocious magical child that just may have the ability to thaw mean prick-hearts, there is Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), a fellow contestant whose best friend is a notebook he calls Todd.
Though he’s been directing television for 25 years (he became the youngest member of the Director’s Guild at age eighteen), Bad Words is Jason Bateman’s feature-length directorial debut. It’s a more than competent effort and this will no doubt be the first of many credits to his name.
He fares just as well in front of the camera, which should come as no surprise. It’s fun (for awhile anyway) to see Bateman portray such an unlikable character since he’s universally known as the go-to guy for nice guy everyman roles (well, if Paul Rudd is busy). He certainly has a knack for effortlessly delivering offensive verbal smackdowns with perfect timing and an intonation that’s just the right pitch of gentle smugness.
The rest of the cast deliver what is asked of them, which is really all they can do considering none of these characters would actually exist in real-life.
The bright spot for me was ten year old scene-stealer Rohan Chand. Watch this kid’s career. He’s talented beyond his years and is adorable without ever being irritating. His performance is the only reason I would recommend this movie to anyone.
I’m usually not one to gush over kids, but this one makes my cold, dead, biological clock tick a little.
Finally, I must toast the use of a Beastie Boys song in a montage because the Beastie Boys make everything better.
We miss you MCA.
Andrew Dodge’s screenplay gained acclaim as a selection on 2011’s Black List (a prestigious annual list of the best unproduced screenplays) which makes me wonder how bad the other submitted screenplays were in 2011. It’s never as sharp and clever as it thinks it is. In fact, it’s not sharp or clever at all. There are a few moments that suggest there could be a better movie in there somewhere but for the most part it’s pretty much just “look at how offensive this is, it’s hilarious, right?” daring the audience to laugh. But the laughs never come because it’s just not that funny. Of course comedy is subjective, so if you think it’s hilarious to call an Indian kid “Slumdog” or love a good lobster-hanging-from-a-dude’s-genitals sight gag, then by all means go hand over your ten dollars and 90 minutes of your life at your local multiplex. For me, it rarely connected and after awhile tested my patience with the same stuff over and over again. In addition, this type of humor has already been done so many times that it never feels shocking or fresh, which is clearly the intent.
Let’s be honest, spelling bees are basically the smart-kid equivalent of beauty pageants. Children are propped up on a stage to compete against each other for prizes and much of the time it’s the vicariously-living parents pushing their kids to be “the best.”
This is prime fodder for satire and while Bad Words attempts to touch on it, it misses a major opportunity and never really does anything with the set-up.
Unlike say, this.
Plus, maybe if some of Guy’s tirades of awfulness were directed at people that actually deserved it, we’d be able to get behind him a little more when the film does a 180 and suddenly expects the audience to care about him once he reveals his big reason for being a terrible person (NOTE: it’s pretty easy to figure out and hardly justifies his behavior).
Yes, there is a moment when we’re just supposed to forgive all the racist, homophobic, misogynistic, and sick things Guy has said and done over the course of the movie and feel sorry for him. Then we’re supposed to cheer when his heart grows three sizes and he actually does something kind. It doesn’t work because the film previously spent so much time establishing the character as being a deplorable motherfucker and this turnaround happens too fast, never feeling genuine.
This is the type of movie people will either love or hate. Many people seem to love it which I’d venture to guess has more to do with people loving Jason Bateman. I love Jason Bateman and I wanted to get behind this movie and support his first time out as a director because I’m sure he worked really hard and he’s so funny and seems like such a nice guy and everything. But I didn’t love this movie. It makes the mistake of assuming that because something is offensive, it’s automatically funny, and felt lazy, repetitive, and derivative with a weak and predictable story. Despite all those big words, it’s just not very smart.
Next time, Bateman, next time. (Hopefully with a better screenplay.)
Take a Drink: every time a contestant asks for the definition of a word.
Take a Drink: every time Jenny instructs Guy not to look at her.
Take a Drink: every time you feel sorry for Allison Janney, who deserves so much better than this role.
Take a Drink: every time Guy meanly sabotages a contestant. Take Two: if it involves a packet of ketchup.
Take a Drink: every time you wonder why Chaitanya’s father seems totally cool with letting his son hang out with a 40 year old stranger.
Chug – through the spelling of every long word.