In ‘Bad Words,’ Jason Bateman a vitriol virtuoso
By RICHARD ROEPER Movie Columnist March 18, 2014 9:06PM
Guy (Jason Bateman) finds a loophole allowing him to compete against children in the National Spelling Bee. | FOCUS FEATURES
‘BAD WORDS’ ★★★1⁄2
Guy Jason Bateman
Jenny Kathryn Hahn
Chaitanya Rohan Chand
Dr. Deagan Allison Janney
Focus Features presents a film directed by Jason Bateman and written by Andrew Dodge. Running time: 89 minutes. Rated R (for crude and sexual content, language and brief nudity). Opens Friday at local theaters.
Updated: April 22, 2014 6:06AM
Nobody this side of Bill Murray can do despicable-and-yet-somehow-likable as well as Jason Bateman, and in “Bad Words,” Bateman has a near-perfect vehicle to showcase a witheringly effective style that stings like a thousand paper cuts.
It’s only March, but we have a prime candidate for Most Lovable A------ of the Year at the movies. Bateman’s Guy Trilby is a 40-year-old misanthrope that treats his peers, children, the elderly and essentially any human being who comes into this path with equal disdain. Will Rogers famously said he never met a man he didn’t like; Guy Trilby wouldn’t like anyone Will Rogers ever met and he wouldn’t like Will Rogers, either.
I loved the guy. You might, too, if your sense of humor is just sick enough.
“Bad Words” is the kind of pitch-black dark comedy that makes you wince even as you give up on stifling the chuckles. A film about an ordinary-looking man who is so sour on the inside, he will humiliate, manipulate and intimidate 10-year-old children in order to exact revenge on a man who doesn’t even know there’s a revenge plan in place.
Making his directorial debut, Bateman wisely chose a brilliant, uncompromising and wickedly funny screenplay by Andrew Dodge. This is “About a Boy” meets “Bad Santa” meets “Little Miss Sunshine,” with Dodge’s script expertly navigating the territory between darkly funny and just plain mean-spirited, and Bateman the director knowing the best thing to do is keep things simple, efficient and effective.
A little bit more about this Guy Trilby fellow. He’s a highly intelligent, deeply anti-social, big bowl of hate who spews insults with a deadpan style that leaves his victims speechless as he saunters off, ever so pleased with himself for getting off another hurtful zinger.
For reasons not fully explained until fairly deep into the story, Guy has found and is exploiting a loophole in the rules of the National Spelling Bee that allows him to compete against fourth-graders, and despite the howls of protests from the helicopter parents and the best efforts of the lawyers, there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
The other thing is, Guy’s probably going to win. He’s a professional proofreader and he has a photographic memory, and it appears there are no words he can’t spell — and no tricks he won’t resort to in order to win.
“Why are you up here?” asks an overweight kid sitting next to Guy in a preliminary round.
“Your chair called me for help,” says Guy, and that’s only about the 14th meanest thing he says or does to his opponents as he works his way to the national finals.
Kathryn Hahn plays Jenny, an online reporter who is funny and vulnerable and more than a bit of a mess as she alternates between badgering Guy for an interview explaining his motives, expressing her disgust for his actions — and finding him oddly compelling. The always dependable Allison Janney is the tournament director, who schemes to find ways to eliminate Guy from the televised tournament, and Philip Baker Hall is perfectly cast as the gruff intellectual who founded the tournament. All give solid performances, which helps keep “Bad Words” grounded in a semi-plausible universe.
However, the scene-stealing performance comes from Rohan Chand as the precocious-even-for-a-spelling-bee Chaitanya Chopra, who’s all crooked teeth and wide eyes as he cheerfully admits he’s a social outcast and he doggedly pursues a friendship with Guy, despite Guy’s sometimes jaw-droppingly offensive insults. This kid will slay you.
At times the humor in “Bad Words” is more mean than spirited. One exchange with a contestant’s mother seems gratuitously nasty, and the payoff a few scenes later is forced and flat. I can also see how some folks might find nothing funny about a grown man inflicting some serious and potentially lasting emotional damage on kids that don’t deserve it. A real-life Guy Trilby probably wouldn’t get through the day without getting punched at least once.
But this is social satire, and the whole spelling bee world and some of the tournament officials and parents who inhabit that world are exceedingly worthy targets. (For the definitive look inside the world of the real-life National Spelling Bee, check out my colleague Neil Steinberg’s book “Complete and Utter Failure,” with its description of the “official crying room,” where young contestants weep after enduring the public humiliation of misspelling an obscure word they’ll most likely never encounter again.) More often than not, Guy is saying exactly what we’d want to say in a confrontation with an obnoxious parent or jabbering pest or a perceived threat, if we were gifted with his ability to instantly verbalize our feelings without the filter of a working conscience.
At the end of a brisk 90 minutes, I was looking for three payoffs to Guy’s journey. I felt cheated by at least one of those resolutions, but I’m sure if Guy knew that, he wouldn’t lose a single second of sleep over it.
Which is what makes him such a memorable character.