Bad Words stars Jason Bateman as Guy Trilby, a 40-year old proofreader for warranties (and unapologetic misanthrope), who – because he dropped out of middle-school so many years earlier – is able to exploit a loophole in the rules for the Golden Quill National Spelling Bee, which allows him to compete alongside the various over-achieving pre-high schoolers in the event. Guy’s brilliant understanding of the English language – coupled with his willingness to psyche out the much-younger competition – soon lands him a spot in the Golden Quill finals, much to the dismay of the other contestants’ parents.
However, obstacles soon present themselves in the form of contest official Dr. Bernice Deagan (Allison Janney) – who is determined to put an end to Guy’s circus-act – and 10-year old Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), a precocious and over-enthusiastic Golden Quill contestant who inexplicably takes a liking to Guy. Meanwhile, online journalist Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn) – who is funding Guy’s antics – continues to push her subject to answer the question on everybody’s mind: Why would a grown-man so willingly do all of this, knowing that it will bring him nothing but scorn from the public?
Bad Words is the feature-length directorial debut for Bateman, who drew from an original screenplay – one which made the 2011 Hollywood Black List of Best Unproduced Scripts – written by relative newcomer Andrew Dodge. Unfortunately, Bad Words doesn’t make a strong impression, as it’s weighed down by too much uninventive and repetitive humor (coupled with weak storytelling, on the whole).
Behind the camera, Bateman manages to assemble select sequences that leave a good impression – including an effective silent comedy montage and some interesting framing. Yet, at other times, the film’s ultra-lower budget (coupled with Bateman’s lack of directing experience outside of the TV medium) results in awkward camera work and cinematography. It doesn’t help that the editing by Tatiana S. Riegel (Fright Night) has a bad tendency to be slack, giving rise to comical exchanges and scenes that don’t have much rhythm to them.
Dodge’s script has a mean-spirited premise with a nasty sense of humor, in the vein of something like Bad Teacher. Unfortunately, its jokes don’t have much bite, in no small part because they’re often formulaic. The final result is a film that feels like a very long sitcom, albeit one where the protagonist is allowed to casually make R-Rated non-PC jokes. Bad Words never takes off as satire either, though it frequently toys with the idea – by starting to skewer the institution at the heart of its plot (e.g. mocking parents who push their kids to win no matter what the cost) – but never fully does, sorry to say.
That’s also disappointing because Dodge’s script does have a simple, yet smart through-line (i.e. that basic actions can be more harmful than even the worst of words). Some of the better parts of the film address this idea, through Bateman’s solid dramatic performance – that which subtly communicates the emotional hole at the center of this otherwise prickly, foul-mouthed man named Guy. Unfortunately, that material is too little, too late, resulting in a film that’s only sporadically funny, until it tries to get all warm and gooey on you, while still being as “edgy” as it was before.
Bateman, as indicated before, does bring more depth to the Guy Trilby character than the script manages. He’s likewise able to get more mileage out of the movie’s written jokes than someone else might have, through his usual sharp timing and deadpan delivery. All the same, no matter what racist, hateful and/or rude thing the Guy character says, it’s never truly shocking (much less, shockingly funny), and he’s not given enough humanity to make his behavior convincing as a defense mechanism that makes him empathetic.
Rohan Chand (Jack and Jill) as Chaitanya is pleasantly bright-eyed and cheery, which allows his character to have decent chemistry with Bateman’s Guy. However, the storyline that follows their unconventional friendship is pretty straight-forward and predictable, too much so for the actors involved to make it either touching and/or funny. The same goes for Kathryn Hahn (We’re the Millers), who makes her reporter character Jenny Widgeon charmingly pushy and neurotic – despite her often being the butt of over-used jokes and other bland comical payoffs.
As for the rest of the Bad Words cast, Allison Janney (The Way Way Back) is wasted as the stern and disapproving official who runs the Golden Quill spelling bee. Her attempt to foil Guy’s efforts is as by-the-numbers as most of the reactions by upset parents in response to Guy’s “outrageous” antics. Other recognizable faces that show up – but have little in the way of interesting things to do – include Ben Falcone (a.k.a. Melissa McCarthy’s husband) as an announcer at the spelling championship and Philip Baker Hall (Magnolia) as the founder of the Golden Quill event, Dr. Bowman.
In the end, Bad Words plays out as a farce that (sadly) just isn’t all that insightful, witty, or creative with how it approaches its premise – one that is innately kind of funny, but only goes so far. There are laughs to be had here, and moviegoers who are die-hard fans of Jason Bateman’s comedy style might find that his performance is enough to make the movie worth checking out – and hence, may find it slightly more enjoyable. For others, though, this film mostly plays out as a failed attempt to emulate the Bad Santa formula.
In case you’re still undecided, here is the trailer for Bad Words:
Bad Words is now playing in theaters nation-wide. It is 88 minutes long and Rated R for crude and sexual content, language and brief nudity.