I haven’t covered him much on the blog, but I’ve been a big fan of Jason Bateman for a very long time – even before I got hooked on Arrested Development. He’s adorable and wickedly funny, but this, his feature film directorial debut, was prime comedy brilliance.
The story centers on Bateman’s character, Guy Trilby, a 40-something man who enters a spelling bee on a technicality in order to prove a point. While we don’t discover what point he’s trying to make until much later on, it’s a wild, raunchy ride all the way through.
Trilby’s “partner” in this whole thing is a reporter – a blogger, truth be told – who was just curious enough about his motives to follow Trilby’s destructive – perhaps self-destructive – path through the spelling bee tournaments and cover it. Press sponsorship is a requirement for eligibility, which is why Trilby is willing to keep a nosy, disheveled writer who’s always in reporter-mode at his side throughout the tournaments.
While Guy is trying to make a point, he is, in fact, a kind of savant at spelling, which is why he not only is able to enter the contests, but win them over and over again. He proofreads for a living, and over the years has gained an eidetic memory for obscure and unusual words.
Trilby doesn’t make any friends along the way, nor does he gain any outsiders’ support for his “mission”. Instead, he earns only distrust and ire from the spelling bee administrators and the parents of all the children participating, leaving some of the kids – the biggest rivals – shaken by his maneuvers to throw them off their game, and leaving even more parents incensed at his audacity to take away their children’s right to compete.
In the days leading up to the final competition – the big dance, so to speak – Trilby meets Chaitanya, an adorable Indian boy who is also one of Guy’s opponents. They become friends, Chaitanya instilling a little humanity back into the sarcastic, jaded Trilby, and Trilby giving the kid a break from his strict schedule and letting him have a little fun – wholly inappropriate and occasionally illegal fun, but fun nonetheless.
The best part is, the film gives you a completely satisfying explanation for the story trajectory and leaves you with a resolution you can both believe and be happy with. It was a bit extreme, Guy’s mission, but I think Guy Trilby is the type of person who operates under the “go big or go home” philosophy in life, so for him, entering the spelling bee and following it through to the end was a natural decision. Sometimes, movies that start off with a weird premise – like a grown man participating in a spelling bee for children – go off on a tangent and fall flat at the end, but Bad Words succeeds in its comedic efforts as well as having a well-structured story.
With supporting roles filled by Allison Janney and Philip Baker Hall as rigid spelling bee bureaucrats, Rachael Harris (you may recognize her as Sheila Sasz, Louis’s lady from Suits) as a disgruntled parent, and Kathryn Hahn as Trilby’s reporter/friend with benefits, there are so many opportunities for Bateman to swing his comedic punches, it’s almost not fair.
While Hahn gets to be the butt of many of Bateman’s jokes, she’s one who can hold her own – which is why I like her so much – and she does so with her usual level of self-deprecating, snappy comedic genius. I always feel like she doesn’t get enough leading roles and doesn’t get as much appreciation as the actors she stars with, but with films like this, she earns every compliment coming to her.
Harris a very minor character, only in a couple of scenes, but as usual, she is extraordinarily memorable and funny as hell.
And the little boy playing Chaitanya, Rohan Chand, is hilarious! He handles Trilby’s mocking, snide comments, and general anti-sociability with a sweetness and unwavering good nature. While he picks up a few bad habits from his new friend Guy, Chaitanya also learns some self-confidence and integrity and shows Guy what friendship really is, no matter what age you are.
Bad Words watches like an indie film: it doesn’t have the flash, the cutting, or the pacing of a big budget, big studio movie, but that’s good – it gives the snark and the insults time to sink in. While some viewers might think the gibes go too far or are too mean, I think that’s what makes it such intelligent filmmaking. It dares to attack your sensibilities, gives you a total jerk for a protagonist, and still leaves you rooting for Trilby and hoping he gets what he came for in the end.
Start to finish, Bad Words is irreverent, inappropriate, and jaw-droppingly funny. I loved every minute of it! While I think fans of the styles of comedy that Bateman, Hahn and Janney bring will especially enjoy this film, I’m confident anybody who can dig a smartass in a v-neck will be laughing along with the rest of us!
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