Film Review: Jason Bateman’s “Bad Words” — The Spelling Bee, Comically Deconstructed

Although rather shallow in its characterizations, “Bad Words” makes up for this deficiency in its rollicking, R-rated demolition of a familiar character-building institution: the spelling bee.

Bad Words. Directed by Jason Bateman. At Kendall Square Cinema and other screens around New England.

Jason Bateman plays a man bent on revenge in a spelling bee in "Bad Words."

Jason Bateman plays a man bent on revenge in a spelling been in “Bad Words.”

By Betsy Sherman

Bad Words is the kind of comedy that serves its laughs with a squirt of lemon juice in the eye. It’s the debut as a feature film director for actor Jason Bateman, who also stars (Bateman has directed episodic television, including the series he was in while a teen, The Hogan Family). Although rather shallow in its characterizations, the movie makes up for this deficiency in its rollicking, R-rated demolition of a familiar character-building institution: the spelling bee.

Don’t get me wrong, I got as choked up as anyone over the documentary Spellbound, in which a diverse bunch of kids strove for excellence and recognition as they prepared for a national competition. But it’s fun to watch Bateman and screenwriter Andrew Dodge target the more fatuous, self-congratulatory side of, in this case, the fictional National Quill Spelling Bee and the children and parents who participate in it. It’s also fun to see Bateman the director give Bateman the actor a change of pace. In his comeback series Arrested Development, and in movies such as Extract and Identity Thief, Bateman has been a well-meaning (if overly complacent) man thrust into difficult circumstances by the wacky and/or devious people around him. This time, to paraphrase Walter White, he is the one who thrusts. Forty-year-old Guy Trilby, who finds a loophole whereby he can enter the spelling bee, brings chaos into a well-ordered subculture and makes life hell for any man, woman, boy or girl in his way.

With color-drained visuals, a dirty-bluesy rock soundtrack, and the star sporting a military buzz cut, the initial scene in which Guy wins a seat at the nationals has the feel of an insurgent strike. The question soon becomes not how, but why the snarky, foul-mouthed Guy is intent on showing he can dominate an institution meant for middle-schoolers. Even Jenny (Kathryn Hahn), the web journalist who’s sponsoring his bid (and who has an amusing, if inscrutable, sexual relationship with him) hasn’t been able to get him to explain his motive.

At the site of the finals, Bee administrators and outraged parents do what they can to sabotage the interloper (his assigned hotel room is a supply closet). During the nationally televised competition, Guy trash-whispers his competitors with such disgusting effectiveness that they wither before they hit the spotlight. Yet one insistently friendly kid, 10-year-old Chaitanya (the talented Rohan Chand), catches Guy off-guard. Something touches him about this little nerd who’s so goofy-lonely he’s given his study binder a name (Todd!). Given how ethically addled Guy is, his idea of taking a fatherly interest in Chaitanya leads to a night-time spree that involves shoplifting, drinking, and hiring a hooker. In the clear light of day, however, there’s still a cut-throat game to be won.

By the time Jenny (who by now has become something of an afterthought) finds out the source of Guy’s beef with the Bee, his story of revenge is secondary to the more interesting relationship between the man and boy frenemies. The final passage sends up all those knee-jerk grand finales of movies about competitions, and substitutes a clever and hilarious subversion of the big showdown.

Alas, Bad Words is not consistently clever. One offense is that Hahn, a wonderful comic actress, is given a character that’s barely there on the page (what’s worse, her only scene without Bateman, in which a federal agent hits on Jenny, isn’t funny and feels shoehorned in). While Bateman’s comic timing is as good as ever, our final picture of Guy still has a lot of holes in it. In that way plausibility, like the spelling wizards who stood in between Guy and his goal, becomes part of the collateral damage.

Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and The Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in Archives Management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.

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