'Words' sticks out tongue at comedy tropes
The problem with “Bad Words,” to the extent that there is one, is that, like its protagonist, it tries too hard.
In the overall scheme of things, that's not such a bad thing.
Jason Bateman has become one of the most dependable straight men around. In “Arrested Development” he was the often-hapless good guy, trying, with hilariously poor results, to keep his dysfunctional family together. He's played a variation on that role in films, but not here. In “Bad Words,” he provides the insanity himself.
In his debut as a director, Bateman plays the bad guy, the foul-mouthed, over-aged spelling-bee participant. For mysterious reasons, he insists on competing in the annual competition, to the frustration and, sometimes, humiliation, of his wee opponents and, especially, their parents.
To be clear: This is humor, in a script by Andrew Dodge, of the scorched-earth variety. Nothing is sacred. Much of it is offensive, on purpose. Either you agree that this establishes Bateman's character, Guy Trilby, as a deeply disturbed man with a pretty wicked sense of humor, or you get offended by him telling an Indian child to “shut your curry hole.” It's played for revealing laughs or it isn't. Bateman, wisely, leaves this up to you to decide.
Guy insists upon competing and won't tell anyone why, not even the online reporter Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), whose website is sponsoring his run (and footing the bill).
Guy, who evidently knows how to spell every word ever created with ease, exploits a loophole in the competition's bylaws, something about his status as not having advanced past the eighth grade making him eligible. No one can kick him out, not even the long-ago former champion and perturbed director of the competition, Dr. Bernice Deagan (Allison Janney, hilarious). Though it's not for lack of trying.
Along the way, a kid, Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), another competitor, tries mightily to befriend Guy. Guy takes the boy on a whirlwind tour of bad behaviors, including cursing, drinking and having a prostitute expose herself to him.
Again, where this falls on your personal line between funny and abusive may vary.
Either way, what makes the comedy work is that Bateman doesn't relent. Guy is, simply, a loathsome person.
Alas, he can't stay that way forever. There has to be some way out for Guy. And Bateman and Dodge try to make the transition seem believable.
But it comes off more as an attempt to appease the audience than anything else. You can't please everyone with a film like this, so you're better off not trying to.
Bill Goodykoontz writes for the Arizona Republic.