While he’s directed episodes of several television series, Jason Bateman hasn’t helmed a feature film until Bad Words, a subversive comedy set in the world of spelling bees. This is assuredly not a documentary in the vein of Spellbound or a feel-good drama ala Akeelah and the Bee.
Bateman is Guy Trilby, a 40-year old misanthrope who enters the Golden Quill, a national spelling tournament for children. It turns out Guy never finished junior high and he exploits a loophole in the rules that state no entrant must have passed the eighth grade. Much to the chagrin of tournament director Dr. Bernice Deagan (Allison Janney) and founder Dr. William Bowman (Philip Baker Hall), Guy is actually a genius and might just win the whole damn thing. Guy’s only competition is Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), an affable 10-year old whose cheery disposition remains unwavering in the face of Guy’s utter contempt. Luckily, Chaitanya is saved from Guy’s more disreputable actions to disrupt the bee. At one point, he sprays ketchup on a girl’s trousers and tricks her into thinking she’s having her period.
The screenplay for Bad Words was written by newcomer Andrew Dodge. It made the Black List, a compendium for hot, but unproduced scripts, back in 2011. It’s easy to see why studios were gun shy of Bad Words since the protagonist is an unrepentant jerk whose behavior borders on child abuse.
Jason Bateman has excelled at playing the straight man thrust into absurd situations. On Arrested Development, his Michael Bluth was the lone beacon of sanity surrounded by a family of lunatics. In Bad Words, Bateman actively plays against his nice guy image, but still spews every line of venom with his trademark deadpan delivery. He never shows one ounce of gratitude towards Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), a hapless online reporter who sponsors Guy and even pays for his meals and accommodations. The two of them engage in casual, awkward sex in which Jenny repeatedly orders Guy not to look at her. Hahn is always terrific in these supporting roles, which require her to fearlessly leap into outrageous situations. Allison Janney and Philip Baker Hall are great foils for Bateman though you can’t help feel that they are a bit wasted in such one note roles.
The main thrust of the film centers on the friendship between Guy and Chaitanya, which forms against all odds, but is thoroughly in line with movie conventions. Bateman’s experience as a child actor likely helped coax a naturalistic performance out of doe-eyed and precocious Rohan Chand. It’s all summed up in a montage set to the Beastie Boys as Guy and Chaitanya run amok in a spree of shoplifting, pranks, and a visit to a prostitute so the kid can see his first boobs. On one hand, you sort of root for the two to bond given Chaitanya’s troubles with bullies and his ultra-stern father. Yet, it’s a difficult task to remain in Guy’s corner when he’s hurling racist insults at the boy, ones that aren’t even that creative like “slumdog” and “curry hole.”
The video is presented in 1080p with as aspect ratio of 2.40:1. Picture quality is crystal clear as Bateman utilizes a heavy sepia tone with the transfer emphasizing browns and yellows.
The audio is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. This is a dialogue-heavy comedy so the sound is straight forward without a lot of immersive qualities. Things get a little more robust during the montage.
The Blu-ray includes an audio commentary with Jason Bateman, who is surprisingly technical as he talks about cinematography, working with actors, and composing shots. There are a number of gaps in the discussion.
The Minds and Mouth Behind Bad Words (10:32) is a standard behind-the-scenes featurette with Bateman speaking on his directorial debut and Dodge discussing the script writing process. Bateman also admits to being a terrible speller even when the words are written on cue cards.
Rounding out the extras are about six minutes of deleted and extended scenes.
Film Value: 6
Can you spell, ‘misfire?’ Bad Words never had the convictions to go full force in creating a truly reprehensible protagonist. It tries hard to make Guy unlikeable while still making him likeable enough for that third act emotional payoff when all is revealed. Bateman has the talent to make it work, but the humor goes for pure shock value rather than anything creative.