Here is the premise for Bad Words: A 40-year-old high school dropout decides that, thanks to a loophole in the rules, he is going to compete on the national spelling bee circuit. The rules state that in order to compete, one must not have passed 8th grade by a certain date. This man, named Guy Trillby (Jason Bateman), has not done so, and is therefore eligible as long as he has a sponsor from a national media corporation. Enter Jenny (Kathryn Hahn), who agreed to sponsor him as long as she could write an article about his journey.
Guy is an uncooperative interviewee and an absolute genius when it comes to spelling words. Thanks to what’s likely a huge IQ and an eidetic memory (I presume the two aren’t linked but perhaps they are), he wins spelling bee after spelling bee, much to the chagrin of the children and their parents. An early scene has him literally running out with the trophy, being followed by all of the other adults. This is a common occurrence, we assume, given that a getaway car driven by Jenny was ready to go.
The majority of Bad Words takes place over the course of one weekend, during the final and biggest tournament. The spelling bee scenes are often similar to what you’d expect, assuming you’ve ever tried to sit through a real spelling bee. Definitions are asked for, origins are questioned, and it’s a real bore. That is, it’s boring without the addition of Guy, who takes it for a joke, and routinely ruins the opportunities of the kids and spells any word without going through all of the basic questions that just take up time.
The real action takes place after each round of the competition, during which time we get small interactions between Guy and a couple of other characters. The first is Jenny, who sleeps with Guy a time or two — either because she genuinely feels affection for him or because she’s hoping to break his cold exterior to get real answers for her article — while the second, and likely to be the most talked about, is with a fellow competitor: an adorably cute boy named Chaitainya (Rohan Chand).
I feel like their interactions are likely going to be the most talked about because the amount of depravity that this kid is put through rivals most other movies. There’s cursing, destruction of property, drinking, and even the nudity of a prostitute. All with this child witnessing or directly participating in this behavior. Why do I get the feeling parents’ groups are going to have a fit when they see this movie? It’s because lots of this can’t be completely faked, and the kid is so adorable and innocent.
Another reason is because of the tone that Bad Words strikes. It’s a very mean-spirited and vulgar comedy in general, so adding a child into the mix is going to upset someone, right? The film’s director is also our lead actor, Jason Bateman — here working from a screenplay by Andrew Dodge — and it’s safe to say that he had a strong influence in that tone. For his directorial debut, he wanted to make an impact. He made one. This is an insult comedy of the finest caliber, assuming you enjoy such a thing.
Almost all of the jokes can be lead back to one of two things. (1) Guy — or, rarely, another character — will say something insulting and/or profane, that in any normal social situation would be thought of as rude and unbecoming. (2) Guy — or, again, possibly another character — will do something that doesn’t involve his mouth that a restrained human being wouldn’t do in a similar situation. There is little else. It’s mean, it’s profane, and if you don’t like it you can **** ***** ***, *** ****** ****** ****!
When Bad Words fails, it fails hard. The ending is cliche and loses a lot of laughs, some of the character beats — especially those between Guy and Jenny — feel vastly underdeveloped, and some of the jokes are predictable. A sentence about how one character will never sleep with another straight to a cut of them having sex in the shower isn’t exactly original. That’s actually about all that doesn’t quite work, though, assuming you don’t recoil at the very concept. If you find this sort of thing funny, you’re going to have a very good time. If you don’t, then you’re going to want to skip it, because it’s essentially 90 minutes straight of just that.
Jason Bateman isn’t your typical leading man, and I find is usually at his funniest in smaller doses. Take his role in Dodgeball, for example. But in this film, doing a smartest-guy-in-the-room shtick and nailing it, he’s very funny. Directing himself seemed to be a move that paid off. Bateman is great both in front of the camera and behind it, and has created for himself a nice (but mean) little film.
Bad Words is a profane and mean-spirited comedy, and if watching a grown man swear at everyone and take a young boy on a journey through more debauchery than most people experience in a lifetime is something you find funny, Bad Words is going to be the film for you. It’s tightly paced, the laughs are frequent until the cliched ending, and Jason Bateman does a great job pulling double duty as both the lead and director. It works and I had a good time while watching it.