By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — I have some good words to say about Bad Words, which uses a lot of big words and bad words, but for good reasons.
Jason Bateman stars as ex-spelling bee loser Guy Trilby, a 40-year-old proofreader of obviously arrested development who finds a loophole in the rules (he never finished eighth grade, even if it was a long time ago) that allows him to enter a local spelling bee as a middle-aged man.
He’s the only non-child entered, and he apparently wants to exact some sort of revenge.
Blessed with a photographic memory, he’s intent on getting to the finals of the televised Golden Quill National Spelling Bee in Los Angeles and its $50,000 first prize.
Now this is, as we know, a contest for kids. Well, let’s see: Guy used to be one, and that will have to do.
The question is why he’s doing this, and we don’t get to find that out until the third act.
As he moves up the competitive ladder, parents of the hardworking young contestants and spelling bee authorities — led by the tournament director played by Allison Janney and an ex-spelling bee champ and PBS spelling-bee commentator played by Philip Baker Hall — resent Guy’s involvement and try to scare him off.
But he won’t budge.
What we get to see in the first two acts are friendless-and-proud-of-it Trilby’s cutthroat tactics in the spelling competition; his twisted relationship with a reporter (played by Kathryn Hahn) whose web site is sponsoring Guy’s entry, who is hoping and trying to tell his story to her readers and has become sexually involved with him; and, in perhaps the film’s most open-armed embrace of surface irresponsibility, his demented-mentor relationship with a wide-eyed ten-year-old fellow contestant named Chaitanya Chopra, an Indian-American lad played by Rohan Chand, whom Guy first insults, next befriends, then introduces to several inappropriate indulgences.
This is Bateman’s feature-film directorial debut after years in television, and he chooses to cast himself -– usually and easily the most appealing and sympathetic of actors — as a thoroughly despicable guy: foulmouthed, unfiltered, mean-spirited, and not only antisocial and cynical but racist and sexist to boot.
This guy is truly mean.
Both as an actor and as a director, Bateman is familiar and comfortable with the comedy of absurdist discomfort, which he demonstrated as the protagonist on TV’s “Arrested Development.” And his ability to spit out pointed, caustically witty, sardonic one-liner asides that arrive like on-target torpedoes is second to no one’s.
In title, topic, and tone, the R-rated Bad Words recalls Bad Santa, giving that nasty entertainment a run for its money in soiling an innocent institution while getting boffo yocks.
The script by first-timer Andrew Dodge, which doesn’t manage its resolution with the same skill evident in the setup, is rife with no-holds-barred insults, many of them in bad taste and many of those hilariously funny. But viewers resistant to bad words will undoubtedly find Bad Words bothersome if not offensive.
As for us, we’ll request the definition of 2½ stars out of 4 for this misanthropic dark comedy in which Jason Bateman tries some bad words for a spell.