BAD WORDS (Rated R)
Making his feature directorial debut with the subversive black comedy “Bad Words,” Jason Bateman has no problem turning himself into a truly horrible human being, willing to crush the hopes and dreams of overly ambitious grade school students.
Bateman’s Guy Trilby is a 40-year-old deadbeat who finds a loophole in the rules of the Golden Quill national spelling bee and decides to cause trouble by hijacking a competition that rightfully belongs to the deserving pre-teen contestants.
Starting at the regional level, Guy harasses contest officials, outraged parents and the kids who dream of victory and fame, to say nothing of prize money and academic recognition. His verbal assaults are uncouth and profane.
Possessed of a photographic memory, Guy cites the arcane rules of spelling bee contests to point out that his failure to graduate from the eighth grade has made him eligible, regardless of age and experience, to enter the competition.
Indignant contest officials are powerless to keep Guy out of the orthography contests. By the way, orthography is another word for spelling. This word is gratuitously inserted here as a teachable moment, in keeping with the spirit of the contests.
The spelling bee administrator Dr. Deagan (Allison Janney) is determined to have Guy eliminated from the field. That’s why he must spell inaccessible words, including “slubberdegullion.” Fittingly, it’s an archaic word that means a slovenly or worthless person.
Undeterred and unbowed by the vitriol that comes his way, Guy presses on to each new level of the spelling bee, intent on making it to the national Golden Quill event. He’s being sponsored by a publication whose reporter is following his every move.
Journalist Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn) aids and abets Guy’s qualifying for matches because she has the exclusive rights her subject’s story. Toxic chemistry between them leads to sporadic bouts of hostile sex.
Par for the course, Guy bullies his way through his relationships and into the competitions against nervous adolescents who are easily rattled by his wild antics of verbal abuse and nasty practical jokes.
Guy treats every contest as if he were a UFC cage fighter. His take-no-prisoners approach to winning is alternately funny and unsettling. You feel bad for the kids that are victimized by Guy, but you can’t help laughing, sometimes awkwardly, at the insanity.
Making it to the national championship is Guy’s dream and a nightmare for the organizers, who decide to make his life miserable. His accommodations at the Sportsman’s Lodge include a cot inside the hotel’s utility closet.
Continuing his odious campaign of intimidation, Guy finally meets his match with awkward 10-year-old spelling whiz Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), a precocious competitor who is completely unfazed by Guy’s antagonistic approach to life.
An unlikely alliance emerges between these two disparate contenders. At first, it seems that Guy is mostly interested in the fact that the Indian boy he calls Slumdog has a mini-bar in his hotel room a few doors removed from the utility closet.
Yet, great chemistry develops between the sweet-natured kid and the ornery middle-aged person who keeps people at arms’ length. Guy takes the kid on a night ride of mischief, inappropriately and hilariously involving strippers, smoking, boozing and shoplifting.
Mostly, Guy treats everyone rudely as the tries to embarrass and outwit the various parties that would deny him the championship trophy. He’s not above being caustic even to his only possible friend, the fellow 10-year-old rival who is best-prepared to actually win.
An unrepentant misanthrope, Guy takes the greatest pleasure in tormenting the Golden Quill’s imperious chief Dr. Bowman (Philip Baker Hall), who is even more unwavering in a quest to get Guy purged from the playing field.
Jason Bateman deserves kudos for his maiden voyage into directing, unafraid to make himself look bad in the service of delivering a good film that showcases great talent and excellent dialogue provided by Andrew Dodge in his first feature screenplay.
A degree of sentimentality creeps into “Bad Words” as the contest winds down to its climactic end. Fortunately, it’s measured so that “Bad Words” does not lose its hard edge of dark comedy.
A quirky black comedy, “Bad Words” is wickedly funny, but its protagonist is often so deeply unlikeable that appreciation of this film may have its limits for some viewers.
Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.