(USA, 88 min.)
Dir. Jason Bateman, Writ. Andrew Dodge
Starring: Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Philip Baker Hall, Rohan Chand, Alison Janney.
Earmuffs, children! Bad Words is a cuss-laden riot. The directorial debut of Jason Bateman gives the finger to political correctness and family-friendly viewing as Bateman’s anti-hero Guy Trilby works his way to the finals of a national spelling bee by dropping one F-bomb after another. Akeelah and the Bee this is not.
Bateman, working with a script by debut writer Andrew Hodge, offers the audience an utterly unlikable protagonist as Guy hijacks the Golden Quill spelling bee by finding a loophole in the rules. Guy, aged forty, never graduated from the eighth grade and he hardballs his way past rule number twenty-four of the Quill’s regulations, which stipulates that any person who has not graduated from said grade may enter. Guy’s not one to mince words and his potty mouth intimidates the judges, parents, and children in the competition.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to root for Guy as he advances in the competition. He’s racist, juvenile, arrogant, cocky, and just about any other quality that might offer a pejorative. He’s an overgrown child; a man of arrested development and a loser with a black heart and chip on his shoulder.
Therein lies the main problem of both Dodge’s script and Bateman’s direction/performance. Guy is just so unlikable and so unsympathetic that Bad Words borders upon inaccessible. The film requires some familiarity with Bateman’s persona as the amorphous nice guy to appreciate fully the effect of seeing him play against type. The satire is evident in the incongruity of this nasty performance within Bateman’s body of work, although one might not find Guy so wickedly funny if one ever feels that he is a real person and not a fictional character. Even when the film offers some motivation and some nasty foils (including a highlight in the form of Alison Janney) does Bad Words struggle to offer Guy some redemption: he might advance through the competition on merit, but his inspiration for participating in the competition is ultimately one that sees personal shame and ridicule as an end goal.
Bateman’s first effort as a director is respectable, albeit simple, as Bad Word relies mostly on the absurdity of its premise and on the spectrum of its colourful language to carry the joke. Bateman gives the film a conventional approach that lets the cuss-laden repartee do most of the work. Bad Words is alternatively awkward and clumsy whenever it relies much on the visuals of the film, as Bateman mostly plays it safe with close-ups while unwatchably awkward sex scenes (intentionally so) make it a relief that this spelling bee flick depends so heavily upon wordplay.
The jokes miss their target just as often as they hit gold. One uproarious sequence, for example, sees a kid flunk the bee when Guy hands him a pair of panties to return to his mother right before the kid is asked to spell a synonym for promiscuous. A subplot featuring Guy and a fellow bee named Chaitanya (Rohan Chand) offers both redemption and a rapid-fire stream of Slumdog jokes for the anti-hero. The thread with Chiatanya gives Bad Words some black heart by showing that Guy isn’t an inherently terrible man, as he acts as a surrogate father to the neglected boy, albeit by teaching him the joys of underage drinking and fondling breasts. On the other hand, Bad Words is less funny when Guy ejects a competitor by convincing her that she got her period and will be embarrassed on national television. As Guy bullies his prepubescent rivals with “yo’ momma” jokes and mock-menstrual ketchup, Bad Words is bound to offend whichever portion of the audience thinks all children are precious snowflakes.
Mean-spirited humour and children rarely go hand in hand, but the twisted humour of Bad Words is often so off-the-wall that it works. The film takes political incorrectness beyond hyperbole and the jokes are just so outlandish and played with such deadpan farce that the rebellious element makes one laugh even though one recognizes that one should probably know better. Bad Words allows an asshole like Guy to win over a viewer because its subversive comedy hits upon an intrinsic pleasure in seeing bad people get their due. Guy’s fight with the spelling bee ultimately takes a stand for anyone who ever wanted to tell his or her boss to “F-off” or get lost.
Bad Word isn’t a bad movie, but it’s hard film to recommend to anyone. It’s too coarse and vulgar to let the sweetness of Guy’s slight redemption atone for his bad behaviour. It’s an underdog tale in which the innocent are trampled and shamed, and in which one’s own twisted fantasies offer the moral centre. Bad Words has an inherent ugliness that borders upon repellant, yet the ugliness of the film is its greatest charm. Fuck the kids; just enjoy it!
Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
Bad Words opens in theatres March 28.