“I’m not that good at a lot of stuff, especially thinking things through,” says Guy Trilby at the beginning of Bad Words. “That’s why my plan was so s****y.” He’s right about that, and the same may apply to Jason Bateman, who plays the character and chose this film for his directorial debut.
Bateman’s comedy credentials are solid, his stellar work on Arrested Development supplemented by funny turns even in movies that weren’t worthy of him. You can see why he’d be attracted to the story of an embittered man who competes in a kids’ spelling bee; the potential for awkwardness, swearing, and general deplorability is great. But the screenplay (by first-timer Andrew Dodge) has adopted many of the attributes of similar-themed and -titled movies — Bad Santa, Bad Teacher, etc. — without developing a story around them.
Guy Trilby is a mean jerk. That’s…pretty much it. Funny? Yeah, sometimes. But there’s more to humor, even rude, transgressive humor, than just telling an Indian kid “shut your curry-hole.”
The film begins with the story already in progress. We’ve missed whatever the inciting incident was, along with any backstory to explain (or at least hint at) Guy’s motive for his frankly bizarre endeavor. Exploiting a loophole in the rules that lets him participate in the Golden Quill National Spelling Bee regardless of age as long as he never graduated from eighth grade, Guy is relentlessly crushing the competition on the local level, with the goal of winning the national contest. He refuses to tell anyone why he’s doing it, why this is so important to him — including the journalist, Jenny (Kathryn Hahn), whose news outlet is sponsoring him. (Why her organization would pay his expenses without knowing his story is beyond me. What if he’s a pedophile? Isn’t he probably a pedophile??)
At the finals, Guy meets 10-year-old challenger Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), a self-possessed kid without friends who latches onto him as a companion. Somewhat implausibly, maybe even illegally, Chaitanya’s father makes him fly alone and stay in his own hotel room to toughen him up, so the kid has plenty of free time to befriend weird adults. Guy isn’t interested in forming attachments, but he’s gradually won over by Chaitanya’s innocence and trustfulness. Meanwhile, Guy engages in as much drinking and whoring as he can, verbally abusing every person he comes in contact with because he’s a venal, angry person.
There are some laughs in the spelling bee parents and officiators’ open contempt for Guy, and in his stubborn refusal to give up even when, for example, the bee’s sponsoring hotel puts him in a broom closet instead of a room. But as we progress from round to round, with Guy doing his best to sabotage and distract his competitors — to win at all costs — it’s hard not to be irked by the film’s cagey attitude. Guy keeps teasing Jenny (and us) with promises that all will be revealed…which only makes it that much more disappointing when he finally does tell us his story and it’s not very interesting. Why not give us the facts up front? Why drag it out like some kind of mystery?
To put it bluntly, we need a reason to be on Guy’s side, and the movie won’t give us one. We’re expected to root for him simply because he’s the protagonist. Movie characters don’t have to be “likable,” but if they’re going to be despicable, they need to also be funny (or terrifying, or clever, or beautiful, or whatever). Bad Words doesn’t offer enough laughs to compensate for its mean-spirited behavior or lackluster story. Everyone involved is better than this.
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