Funny, foul and yes, charming, “Bad Words” is a winner. Directed by Jason Bateman and written by Andrew Dodge, “Bad Words” takes a hysterical look at the National Spelling Bee and one man’s quest to win at all costs.
Jason Bateman is Guy Trilby, who, through a loophole, is able to enter the Golden Quill National Spelling Bee, beginning with his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. Needless to say, the younger contestants and especially their parents aren’t thrilled with his participation, but there isn’t much they can do about it. With the local Bee out of the way, Trilby is off to California for the Nationals, accompanied by reporter, Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn). Her online publication is sponsoring him in exchange for a story about why competing is so important to him, although getting a story out of him proves harder than she thought it would be.
Trilby is a middle-school dropout, but his genius becomes apparent almost immediately. With a huge chip on his shoulder, he’s let no one come close to him. It’s clear that Jenny is fascinated by him…personally and professionally… and would like to know him better. Once in California, the two make their way to the Bee headquarters and are met by Golden Quill Director, Dr. Bernice Deagan (a ridiculously bewigged Allison Janney). Her goal…to make Guy’s stay a miserable one, and to somehow get him out of the competition as soon as possible.
Enroute to the Bee, Guy meets one of his fellow competitors, adorable 10-year-old Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), who, for whatever reason, takes a liking to Guy. At heart, Guy and Chaitanya are two lonely souls and the two form a most unusual bond. In some ways, the film becomes a coming of age story for both Guy and Chaitanya. This is not to say that Guy becomes all warm and fuzzy…far from it. Guy is a man on a mission and there is a real purpose to his participation in the Bee. And, oh, the head games he plays with the competition…cruel, but oh so funny.
Confession—I was the runner-up in my city-wide spelling bee many years ago, so this movie hits a little close to home. I’m not sure what I would have done if I found myself sitting next to someone like Guy Trilby and I’m not sure what the reaction of my parents would have been. I don’t know whether to be proud or horrified, but my guess is that we would have behaved much the same way the parents and competitors in the film did. Okay, I feel better now, getting that off my chest.
Bateman is perfectly suited to playing a sadistically droll, witty character who has a heart buried deep inside him. He doesn’t need the help, but Bateman’s butch haircut only serves to make him seem even meaner. If there has ever been a more adorable child actor in recent times than Rohan Chand, I haven’t seen him…and this little boy can act. Bateman has assembled a great supporting cast in addition to Chand. Veteran actor Philip Baker Hall is very good as the Golden Quill’s President, Dr. Bowman. Kathryn Hahn is terrific as the reporter who’s fallen for Guy and Allison Janney is just fabulous as the haughty Bee Director. Rounding out this cast are great character actors in small parts and the young featured competitors are especially good.
Making his directorial debut, Bateman displays a firm hand behind the camera and shows himself to be especially good in working with young actors. One looks forward to seeing what he does next.
“Bad Words” is full of just that…bad words and some very raunchy, crude, cruel humor. But it is well-written, well acted, well directed and well, just plain, all-out funny.