Bateman’s dyspeptic turn as elder speller earns all A’s
The word facetious contains all the syllables listed alphabetically. Something inchoate is not fully formed. Fingerprints can also be known as dactylograms. These are some of the more gentle examples of wordplay found in the acerbic new comedy filled with Bad Words.
With surprising aplomb, comedic actor Jason Bateman makes his directing debut in Bad Words. Bateman also takes the lead in front of the camera as leading man Guy Trilby, and he does the nearly impossible: He makes the mean-spirited Trilby likeable — or at least palatable — when his time on screen is spent doing mean things.
And during this hour and a half of non-stop Trilby, no adults pretend to like him. They hate him. The only person who comes to know him and like him is a sheltered 10-year-old boy.
The driving narrative force of Bad Words rests on a single gimmick. Screenwriter Andrew Dodge then takes that twist and milks it one-dimensionally — he sets up the outrageous premise of a 40-year-old man who uses loophole to compete in spelling bees for schoolchildren. Once that twist is established, Trilby revels in his machinations for the rest of the movie, enjoying in the abuse hurled at him by parents and even the young contestants.
Trilby waltzes through competitions and confrontations with a bad word for everyone, particularly Jenny Widgeon (a hilarious Kathryn Hahn), a journalist who follows him around hoping for his story but settling for sex. Widgeon tries to uncover the motive behind Trilby’s actions, something that viewers might also question. When the explanation finally comes, it makes sense. Had it been divulged earlier, Bad Words would be a lesser movie.
Trilby maintains a stoic, hard-edged demeanor throughout, only breaking character when worn down by Chaitanya Chopra, a fellow competitor who clamors for friendship, any friendship, even with a 40-year-old curmudgeon. Rohan Chand, a precocious scene-stealer, turns in a touching performance as Chopra, a mournful, neglected child with pushy parents.
Bad Words follows Bad Santa and Young Adult in their portrayals of deliciously bad people made entertaining by mordant dialogue and their utter lack of repentance — characters so bad, they’re good. Bateman never hesitates to present an awful character.
In the process, Bateman has made a funny, edgy film.
Rated R, 90 minutes