Overview: In Jason Bateman’s directorial debut, he stars as a grown man who infiltrates The Golden Quill National Spelling Bee. Focus Features; 2014; Rated R; 89 minutes.
What REALLY Works: More than anything, it is Guy Trilby’s (Jason Bateman) friendship with 10-year-old fellow contestant Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand) that fuels the film. Chopra is sweet, wide-eyed, and as innocent as can be, claiming that his only friend in the world is his academic binder filled with words that he’s learned to spell. He affectionately calls the binder “Todd” and calls it his “key to success.” Chopra is as bright and optimistic as Trilby is dark and pessimistic. This stark contrast makes their relationship easily the funniest and most enjoyable of the film. In fact, Bad Words would have been a much stronger film had it left out a few useless characters and just focused more on Trilby and Chopra. Hell, I want another full-on buddy comedy starring Bateman and Chand, who is all kinds of adorable, right now.
What Doesn’t Work: The most pointless of these formally mentioned throwaway characters is Jenny Widgeon (Kathyrn Hahn), a journalist who is inexplicably spending weeks with Trilby and paying all of his travel and food expenses in exchange for the rights to break his story. Hahn is fine in the role, but the character doesn’t add enough for her inclusion in the film to feel at all justified. She’s not very funny, Trilby is frustratingly rude to her, and she never seems to learn from her own mistakes. This character isn’t the film’s only flaw, but she’s the easiest to explicitly discuss. There’s also the fact that everyone seems way too worked up over a spelling bee, but I guess that’s part of the joke.
What Might Work: The humor in Bad Words isn’t going to work for everyone. In fact, I’m not sure it worked for me. It’s so mean, so unabashedly cruel, that I found myself flinching more than laughing. Bateman completely commits to the rudeness. Trilby’s a complete bastard. Misanthropic, unapologetic, misogynistic, racist bastard. Though voice-overs, motivations for competing in the bee, and the adorable friendship with Chopra make Trilby more of a sympathetic character, he’s never quite likable, and that strengthens the film. We’re not exactly supposed to root for this guy, but we can’t really help ourselves. If nothing else Bad Words proves that Bateman is a strong enough actor to transcend his image. As a director, he doesn’t give us anything we haven’t seen before, but he’s fine. That’s it, really. Not bad. Not exceptional. Fine. Bateman certainly has promise, and Bad Words proves that he’s at least got the chops to put together a pretty enjoyable film.
Final Thoughts: Bad Words won’t please everyone. For some, it will be too harsh. For others, it will end too sweetly. But for those who are willing to look past some flaws, it’s worth watching.