Bad Words, an inappropriate exercise in audacity starring Jason Bateman, works exceedingly well if you’d laugh at a full-grown adult with life experience and a job stealing candy from a baby. Appalling, you say! Never, you say! Now imagine the adult swiping that lollipop, laughing in that baby’s face, and moonwalking away. Even if you don’t agree with the act, you have to admire their spirit.
More than confidently-directed by Bateman, Bad Words (his feature directorial debut) follows Guy Trilby, a casually mean but focused adult entrant to the national spelling bee — yes, the one usually meant for children. The setup is quick and painless for all but the parents of some disappointed eighth-grade Ohioans who attack Guy after he forces his way into a regional qualifier and ungraciously trounces his much younger competition. There should be no enjoyment in watching an adult handily beat and humiliate children (who lack the decades of practice and theoretical maturity Guy has), but Bateman can deliver a stinging one-liner like no other, and the way he recognizes his advantage, relishes winning, and shows off while doing it actually inspires awe in its audacity rather than disgust. Guy is LeBron James showboating at a kiddie dunk contest, and he’s actually winning you over.
The explanation of how Guy can compete is that the 40-year-old proofreader never completed education beyond the eighth grade, a loophole that proves sturdier to negate than most people expect. It’s a convenience that makes the plot possible but a detail that doesn’t feel contrived – Guy is smart, but he wasn’t a kid privileged with parents to coach him to be a world-class speller by age 10. What other challenges in life left him with such a chip on his shoulder that he gets a kick out of beating the snot out of pre-teens at spelling is unclear; the explanation of why Guy wants to compete is the question of the movie and one he’s not quick to answer.
Understanding his drive to compete against and humiliate children in a nationally-televised event also drives Jenny (Kathryn Hahn), a journalist doggedly in pursuit of Guy’s story and whose news service is also the sponsor of his entry. That conflict of interest isn’t the only one in their relationship: Jenny is drawn with as many complexities as Guy, though her damage takes expression in its own idiosyncratic ways. Hahn finely walks the line between drama and comedy (as her growing body of work has done lately), reacting as any reasonable person would to Guy’s need to act out while giving the film an emotional groundedness when she discovers why Guy is in the competition.
Bad Words mines comedy from characters aware of their own flawed coping mechanisms but doing what they feel anyway. Jenny and Guy’s choices might seem reckless, but there’s an integrity to the how their warped actions follow clearly from what they want.
Few others see Guy’s stunt as admirable. Allison Janney plays a proud official of the lauded Golden Quill, the organization that hosts the bee, who mounts a merciless campaign against Guy’s entry, much to the satisfaction of the apoplectic parents of the other spellers. (Incidentally, Bateman’s able visual direction shines in the scenes in the offices of the Golden Quill, which are shot in such golden light streaming into the hallowed halls that the history of the storied competition almost comes to life, just as Guy is about to shit all over it). Founder of the competition Dr. Bowman (Philip Baker Hall) flies mostly above the fray until Guy reaches a level to be a serious threat.
Guy’s one weakness could come in the form of Chaitanya Chopra (played by Rohan Chand, Jack and Jill), an earnest and overly-positive tween speller. Guy tolerates Chaitanya while spewing all manner of racist and age-inappropriate smack talk, but the kid takes it in stride, (slightly) warming Guy’s heart and stealing nearly every scene he appears in.
Slickly paced and rich with instances of adults behaving badly over absurdly small stakes, Bad Words excels at showing people hurtling headlong into what they know to be very poor choices. That the movie never apologizes for their actions lets the story find a surprising heart.
But just let that happen; see the movie for Jason Bateman flipping off little kids.
Joel Arnold is a writer and improviser living in New York.