“Bad Words” is one of those movies that’s able to pull itself back from the abyss in just enough time to save itself. More than half of the film is dedicated to putting the main character on display as one of the most unlikable people you could ever meet, and therefore, as a natural reaction, the audience is rather repulsed in such a fashion that would obviously harm the possibility of forming any kind of connection to them. However, as the character is developed and motives become clearer, a turnaround occurs that changes everything, causing the viewer to reevaluate the entirety of the bizarre scenario that they’ve just witnessed.
The film tells the story of Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman), a 40-year-old man who has found a loophole that allows him to participate in a spelling bee for children. After winning a regional championship, he travels to the finals, accompanied by his sponsor, Jenny (Kathryn Hahn), a reporter who is trying to discover the motive behind his desire to be a part of this competition. Guy’s participation in the bee causes a lot of parents to become upset, and it certainly doesn’t help that he’s not the most likable of people, but that doesn’t stop a young ten-year-old contestant, Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), from trying to get to know him and become his friend. As the two spend more time together, we discover to our surprise that Guy just might have a soft spot underneath his tough exterior after all.
Sitting through the first half of “Bad Words” reminded me a lot of Jason Reitman’s second-to-last project, the disappointing “Young Adult,” which also featured a very unlikable main character. However, whereas Reitman’s film was unable to come back from that primary reaction of repulsion towards its lead character, Bateman is able to elicit some sympathy through this fascinating relationship he develops with Chaitanya.
When we first meet Guy, he’s got a bad attitude from the start, which only gets worse when those running the regional spelling bee try to tell him he can’t participate. Through a series of legal and PR threats, he does get his way, but the parents don’t take it very well. Not that he cares what they or anyone else thinks of him. Even his relationship with Jenny, whom we can consider his closest acquaintance, is a rather strained one. Every time she tries to learn a little more about him or why he’s doing this, he rudely dismisses her, and yet a physical relationship still forms between them. If he can’t even be respectful to the person who has helped get him this far, you begin to wonder if there’s anyone he’d be able to form a halfway decent friendship with.
On the flight to the finals, he just happens to meet Chaitanya, a young boy and fellow contestant that seems to want nothing more than to be Guy’s friend, but in Guy’s usual fashion, he dismisses him, and not with a simple “no, thank you.” Further encounters at the hotel have pretty much the same result, that is, until Chaitanya mentions the minibar in his room (Guy has been forced to stay in a storage closet thanks to the director of the bee). From here, the two start spending a lot more time together, with Guy introducing him to a few things that he’s never done before. A few of these are relatively harmless, while some are illegal, but the point is that Guy begins to open up more than he ever has before, leading the audience to be able to begin forming the emotional attachment that had been next to impossible before.
Most already know how talented an actor Jason Bateman is from projects like “Juno” and “Up in the Air” (both of which are ironically Jason Reitman films), so it’s no surprise that he continues to impress with his performance here. It’s not only thanks to the screenplay by Andrew Dodge that we come to feel something for the character, but also because Bateman handles the gradual character changes extremely well. It’s also worth noting that Bateman directed the film as well, marking his first time in the director’s chair for a feature film (he had previously directed several television episodes of various series). This is not an incredibly complex film direction-wise, but it does show that Bateman can handle a full-length feature. Hopefully we’ll see more of his work in the future.
Overall, what you get with “Bad Words” is an intriguing premise with a bit of a mystery and a few laughs, but most importantly we get a character arc that just might surprise you. It took a lot of guts to go so far into the film and have Guy be the kind of misanthropic character he is, only to pull back from it in the last 20 minutes or so, but the gamble paid off, resulting in a film that has a little more heart than you might expect. 3/4 stars.
Now playing in limited release. Starts everywhere March 28th.
Now playing in theaters: Pompeii, Labor Day, The Wolf of Wall Street, Her, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Inside Llewyn Davis, American Hustle, Saving Mr. Banks, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Recent Blu-ray/DVD releases: Inside Llewyn Davis, In Fear, Oldboy (2013), Cold Comes the Night, Gravity, Mr. Nobody, The Americans: Season One, Hellbenders, Rocky: Heavyweight Collection, Chicago: Diamond Edition, All is Lost
Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.