Bad Words

Posted by Joel Copling on March 28, 2014

There are, indeed, bad words spoken in "Bad Words," and the trouble is, that is supposed to stand in for both humor and the emotional justification for our protagonist's mean-spirited nature. This is a thin and unsatisfying comedy, supposedly meant to be "dark" in some way, though it proves not nearly substantial enough for that description. It might be lifted by a couple of supporting performances that make it a lot more tolerable than it would have been without them, and its insight into a national spelling bee might make orthography fans' mouths water. Unfortunately these elements are the caviar to a bland sandwich of a dish far less notable as a directorial debut for Jason Bateman than perhaps he wanted it to be.

Bateman not directs but also stars in the lead role of Guy Trilby, a forty-year-old washout who is nonetheless incredibly privy in the art of spelling any word phonetically. The first time we see him, he is ripping away the spelling dreams of school kids and proving to the judges that he's never actually made it past the eighth grade. Guy is not a nice or very good man. Sure, he befriends fellow contestant Chaitanya (Rohan Chand) but spends a majority of the film insulting what he thinks is Chaitanya's heritage and exposing him to some pretty shocking experiences for a ten-year-old. Otherwise, though, Guy can be found nailing a reporter named Jenny (Kathryn Hahn) who has tagged along to write a piece on his journey or tricking multiple contestants to forfeit their chances at winning.

That last element is the only one that manages to get the best bad laughs in a film that otherwise doesn't even seem to be trying. It really is lucky that Chand is such a winning presence and that Hahn elevates her scenes with uncharacteristic gravitas, because otherwise we're left with Bateman's obligatory, almost bored performance as Guy, the wasted likes of the great Allison Janney and Philip Baker Hall as the biggest officials of the main spelling bee (titled The Golden Quill), and a cheap-looking aesthetic only matched by the cheapness of the attempts at mockery and, later, levity following a particularly predictable "surprise" development. At least some of the audience get to learn that the word "floccinaucinihilipilification" exists. It's just ironic that it omits the definition, which describes the collective experience of these 89 minutes.

Film Information

Jason Bateman (Guy Trilby), Rohan Chand (Chaitanya Chopra), Kathryn Hahn (Jenny Widgeon), Philip Baker Hall (Dr. Bowman), Allison Janney (Dr. Bernice Deagan), Ben Falcone (Pete Fowler), Rachael Harris (Eric Tai's Mother), Beth Grant (Bedazzled Judge), Anjul Nigam (Sriram Chopra), Patricia Belcher (Edith), Judith Hoag (Petal Dubois), Kimleigh Smith (Marzipan), Emily Sarah Carlson (Joyce Sacks), Bob Stephenson (Bill Murhoff).

Directed by Jason Bateman and written by Andrew Dodge.

Rated R (crude/sexual content, language, brief nudity).

89 minutes.

Released on March 21 in select cities.