Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) is a pottymouth who never passed the eighth grade. After finding a loophole in the rules for the Ohio regional spelling bee competition, Guy competes against kids more than half his age for a chance to win the national spelling bee, The Golden Quill. Much to the dismay of the overbearing spelling bee parents, Golden Quill director Dr. Deagan (Allison Janney), and Golden Quill founder Dr. Bowman (Philip Baker Hall), Guy manages to sleaze his way through the competition into the final round.
I listed Bad Words in the “Looks Okay” section of my spring movie preview because I wasn’t sure how it would pan out. I hadn’t heard of this movie before February, which is always a bad sign for a movie because it means it isn’t worth marketing. But then I learned that Jason Bateman (of Arrested Development, Horrible Bosses, Juno) was both starring and making his directorial debut, which seemed like a redeeming factor. Looking back, I should’ve gone with my gut and just put this movie in the “Looks Like I Will Regret Seeing This” list.
Bad Words, at best, is a try-hard comedy with novice direction and a bad script. But even that’s giving it too much credit. “Comedy” implies laughter from the audience. And I didn’t laugh once.
Was it because it was predictable? Perhaps. Right from the moment Bateman’s Guy Trilby refused to discuss his father or his reasons for wanting to compete in a children’s spelling bee with journalist Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), who was doing a story on him, it was so obvious that his father was the founder of the national spelling bee. Oops, spoiler alert…NOT. Anyone could’ve seen that coming.
Or maybe it was because Trilby was such an unlikable character—and not the “Game of Thrones Cersei Lannister” kind of unlikable. Yeah, I think this is where most of the comedy was lost. Don’t get me wrong. Swearing and insulting people is my modus operandi, so that’s not what bothered me about Trilby. It’s more that Trilby was never developed so that we could understand why he was such an asshole.
Sure, the dialogue included brief mentions of Trilby’s rough (Read: shitty) childhood, but we never actually saw him struggle. We didn’t see him lose his job or scrambling to pay bills. He was just a dick to everyone because he wanted to be. That, my friend, is not character development; it’s just lazy writing. Also, I didn’t see his antics as funny. They were more along the lines of tiring and pathetic.
To make matters worse, the movie tries to redeem Trilby by showing him bonding with one of his opponents, Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), who he ultimately gives up the championship for in the end. While it was supposed to make Trilby seem like he had some heart under his douchebaggery, it really just came off as an insincere attempt to make this “comedy” something more (Hint: It didn’t).
And then there’s the direction. While I like Bateman and think he’s a good actor (Yes, even when he’s playing a complete dick), I’m not sold on him as a director. His camera angles were unflattering and used haphazardly (like a freshman-level film student’s work), the movie’s pacing and editing was awful, and every technique he used felt like he said, “Hey, let’s do this because I’ve seen it in other movies!”
Overall, Bad Words is predictable, poorly directed, and just not funny. Jason Bateman’s direction comes off as extremely amateur, and his character, Guy Trilby, is an asshole without a reason (which is the worst kind of asshole, in my opinion). The language-heavy comedy feels forced throughout the entire movie, and the story, though interesting, can’t decide whether it wants to make you laugh or make you feel something, of which it does neither. On a good note, every actor puts in solid performances, especially Bateman’s precocious co-star, Rohan Chand, who plays Trilby’s spelling bee frenemy.
Bad Words: C-
For my radio review of Bad Words on “Pat & JT in the Morning,” visit this link (starts around the 24:00 mark).