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Bad Words

D: Jason Bateman / 89m

Cast: Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Rohan Chand, Philip Baker Hall, Allison Janney, Ben Falcone, Steve Witting

At a regional spelling bee competition, forty year old Guy Trilby (Bateman) takes advantage of a loophole in the rules in order to take part and win the competition.  This allows him to take part in the national tournament, which he attends accompanied by a representative, Jenny Widgeon (Hahn), of his sponsor, online newspaper The Click and Scroll.  Travelling to the tournament by plane Guy meets fellow competitor Chaitanya (nicknamed Chai) (Chand).  Chai tries to strike up a friendship with Guy but is rudely rebuffed.  At the tournament, Guy and Jenny are met by the director of the Golden Quill National Spelling Bee Championship, Bernice Deagan (Janney).  She makes it clear that she thinks Guy’s presence and tactics so far are despicable, and that he shouldn’t be there.  Guy is dismissive of her (as he is with most people) and heads for his hotel where he finds his room is a supply cupboard.  That night he and Jenny have sex in his “room” and she leaves her panties behind.  When there’s a knock at his door shortly after, he thinks it’s Jenny come back to get them but instead it’s Chai; they end up spending the rest of the evening together.

On the first day of the tournament, Guy uses Jenny’s panties to help psych out one of the favourites, giving them to the kid in question and asking him to give them back to his mother.  The kid gets his word wrong and is eliminated.  Guy and Chai both advance to the next round. With pressure mounting from the parents of the other finalists, Deagan attempts to manipulate the outcome of the second day so that Guy gets the most difficult words she can find.  That night, he and Chai go out and have fun together, their antics forging a bond between them.  On the second day, Guy again psychs out one of the other contestants, while dealing easily with words such as antidisestablishmentarianism and floccinaucinihilipilification.  He and Chai advance to the final day, while Deagan’s plan is discovered by the moderator (Witting) and she is forced to resign.  That evening, Jenny tries to talk to Guy about something she’s found out, but he avoids her.  He heads to Chai’s room only to overhear the boy and his father discussing Guy and their strategy for dealing with him in the contest.  He bursts in on them and tells Chaitanya that he wants nothing more to do with him.

On the final day, Jenny finally reveals to Guy what she’s discovered, and he in turn reveals his reasons for taking part in the contest.  Still confident of winning, Guy sees the tournament come down to just him and Chai.  He spells his word wrongly, but so too does Chai, who wants to prove to Guy that he is still his friend, despite his father’s plotting.  With neither of them spelling their words correctly, the final turns into a farce, one that Golden Quill president Bill Bowman (Hall) cannot countenance.  But even after he intervenes, the two continue to try and let the other one win until…

Jason Bateman

From the outset, Bad Words is unafraid to show its main character in a bad light; in fact, it revels in it.  Guy Trilby is one of the most obnoxious, caustic, disagreeable, and rude people you’re ever likely to encounter in a movie, and has a putdown for pretty much everybody he comes into contact with – his response to the mother (Rachael Harris) of one of the national competitors when she tells him what he’s doing is disgraceful, is one of the movie’s highlights.  Guy has so little regard for other people’s feelings he’s like a whirlwind of bile, abusive and profane in equal measure.  As created by screenwriter Andrew Dodge, Guy is the acid-tongued, cruelly manipulative, don’t-give-a-shit person we’d all like to be sometimes (but keep locked away for fear of being punched).  He’s a wonderfully nasty creation, and while, yes, of course he has a softer side, it’s still on his own terms.

It’s a wonderful role for an actor and Bateman rightly plays it deadpan, as if Guy’s worked out that his disdain for other people should preclude any physical effort; only a stony-faced expression is employed, one that perfectly illustrates his contempt.  Bateman is clearly enjoying himself, and there are several moments when Guy’s behaviour strays toward being cartoonish, but the actor keeps this from happening, his largely quiet performance grounding both the movie and the character.  When the reason for his being at the tournament is revealed, it’s another quiet moment in a movie that has a stillness about it that offsets Guy’s conduct (and the same is true when that reason is confronted).  This approach to the material is a refreshing change from the usual heavy-handed, ultra-kinetic style of so many comedies made today, and bodes well for any further movies Bateman may decide to direct (and let’s hope the scripts are as good as this one).

In support, Hahn is the internet reporter who is fascinated by, and attracted to Guy in equal measure, her feelings for him keeping her alongside him even though there’s no chance of a long-term relationship.  As Guy’s main competitor and potential friend Chai, Chand is appealingly winsome and, surprisingly, plays his age with little of the pretentious introspection that some child actors bring to their roles – hello, Elle and Dakota Fanning!  Janney plays Deagan with a snide supercilious attitude that fits the character perfectly; it would have been nice to see her trade off against Guy a few more times but the movie has too many other targets for Guy to skewer.  And as the Golden Quill president, Hall adds a level of formality to proceedings that is hilariously undermined by Guy at every opportunity.

Aside from some of Guy’s aggressive turns of phrase, there are several uncomfortable moments where Guy’s interaction with Chai is so inappropriate you’d be calling social services in a heartbeat, but these moments are made palatable – just – by virtue of being very, very funny (check out the lobster in the toilet, and a lady called Marzipan).  And we don’t learn nearly enough about Guy to find out why he behaves the way he does, leaving his motivation for being so awful to people an unexplained character trait and not much more.  And in the director’s chair, Bateman opts for some strange camera placements and angles during the tournament scenes that often interrupt the visual flow.  But these are minor complaints, and bring no lasting detriment to the movie at all.

Rating: 8/10 – not a movie for everyone, but if you like letting out your inner malcontent from time to time, then Bad Words easily fits the bill; a great directorial debut from Bateman and when Guy vents his spleen, so funny and outrageous it’ll make your sides hurt.