Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman), a 40-year-old slacker with a predilection for a myriad of curse words and a photographic memory, finds a loophole in the rules of the youth oriented Golden Quill national spelling bee and decides to hijack the competition. Contest officials, outraged parents, and overly ambitious 8th graders are no match for Guy, as he ruthlessly crushes their dreams of victory and fame. As reporter Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn) attempts to discover his true motivation, Guy finds himself forging an unlikely alliance with a competitor, an awkward, yet confident 10-year-old Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), who’s completely unfazed by Guy’s cynical, take-no-prisoners approach to life.
For his directorial debut Bateman has chosen a vulgar little film, highlighting a side of him we barely get to see on screen. Guy is an unapologetically despicable lout of the highest degree, nonchalantly strolling into his first competition and immediately telling all the parents to prepare to take care of their crying children after he wipes the floor with them. It’s a somewhat funny and knowingly ludicrous set-up for a film that’s not explained in any satisfactory way since all of Trilby`s conduct and behavior should lead to immediate dismissal. It amounts to a one note premise that loses steam pretty fast. At least there are a lot of laughs to be had.
The biggest issue that Bateman faces as a director (which on a technical level, he’s quite good at) comes in setting the tone and intention of the film once Trilby`s young apprentice shows up. What has been a lewd and crass comedy starts to blend with a heartwarming and goofy coming of age story, and the two different tones never mesh well. Bateman struggles to make a decision on which direction should become the dominant once and ends up diluting both in the process. Chand doesn’t help Bateman`s decision making get any easier either because he’s so overwhelmingly loveable from the second he appears on screen. The increasingly disturbing and highly inappropriate relationship between the pair would likely result in Trilby`s incarceration in reality, but in the world of Bad Words it’s never even considered.
Still, this is a very, very funny film. Bateman, not confined to the traditional straight man role here, gets to play around in the murky waters of a very un-pc character and he takes to it with gleeful aplomb. The opening sequence is clever and brilliant in how it sets up Trilby`s defiant attitude and complete lack of respect for authority. The film tries to leave the reasoning behind Trilby`s actions a mystery for most of the film, but then the reveal is sadly wasted in a throwaway sequence with a terrible payoff.
Hahn’s presence as a reporter after Trilby`s story (while also funding his quest through her paper) is only there to provide Trilby with a more awkward love interest that himself. With the couple`s random hookups and Hahn`s weird conditions on their sexual trysts (Trilby is not allowed to look at her) Hahn`s character also becomes increasingly predictable even at her wackiest because of the film’s aversion to explaining why anyone does anything they do. What should have become a strong female presence in Guy`s life becomes a waste of a very talented actress.
Bad Words is a complete draw; as much a missed opportunity a win. While ultimately very funny, Guy`s actions seem to carry zero consequences and that’s a major problem once the formula starts to lose momentum going into the predictable, uninspired final showdown onstage between Guy and Chaitanya. Fortunately the film has managed to garner enough laughs and goodwill throughout thanks to the performances and direction to survive the final act.