You either find kids being exposed to inappropriate language/material funny or you're boring, and clearly Jason Bateman finds it hilarious, as his new film BAD WORDS seems to prove. In what is also his debut as a director, Bateman plays Guy Trilby, a 40-year-old man with a chip on his shoulder the size of North Dakota. For reasons that are kept secret to everyone but himself, Trilby has set his sites on finding a loophole in the rules of The Golden Quill national spelling bee that allows him to participate in the competition with the goal of stealing away any chance an actual child has of winning. In addition to his unreal spelling abilities, he also plays mind games with his young competitors that often throw them off their game and have them running from the stage.
Guy's antics would probably have gone unnoticed by everyone but the other contestants were it not for troubled online reporter Jenny Widgeon (the always-perfect Kathryn Hahn), who is following him around the country and financing his trip in an effort to uncover his motivations for his awful, dream-dashing behavior. They also occasionally have awful, disturbing, hilarious sex together that reveals more about how much Jenny hates herself ("Don't look at me!") than anything about Guy.
Begrudgingly, Guy befriends one of his 10-year-old competitors, Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand, who played the little village boy in LONE SURVIVOR), whose parents have decided to stay in a nicer hotel to allow him complete isolation to study. Instead, the pair have a guys' night out that includes junk food, a visit to a bar, and perhaps a prostitute (for purely scientific purposes). Also on hand to hate Guy's very existence are Allison Janney as the bee's top officiant, Ben Falcone as a commentator, Rachel Harris as another competitor's mother, and the great Philip Baker Hall as the chairman of the Golden Quill.
BAD WORDS doesn't overstay its one-note welcome, and it even manages to have a few mild surprises along the way thanks to Andrew Dodge's sharp but simple script. Even the turns that aren't as surprising as they think they are are still executed with the right level of dramatic confidence that it become more about the reaction than the plot twist. The bottom line, however, is that if you are bothered by kids being picked on by a grown-up bully, you're probably going to have real issues with this film, even after learning that Guy's cruelty comes from a place of deep pain within himself.
One of the most surprising elements in BAD WORDS is the aesthetic. For a film that is essentially the darkest of comedies, it's shot in the darker tones of a drama, using a lot of long shots with a tendency to under-light everything, thanks to cinematographer Ken Seng, who worked with Batemen in the drama DISCONNECT. Which is not to say the film exists only in shadows; it just doesn't pop the way most comedies do, and I'm fairly certain that's on purpose. There's an artistry at work here that is almost lost because of the cruelty of the humor, but if you find it in yourself to laugh, the film's muted visual elegance will be easier to spot.
Bateman is not stranger to playing a sourpuss from time to time, but Guy Trilby is in a class by himself—and believe it or not, he's easy to love for all of his mean jokes and willingness to let his personal vendetta get in the way of years of striving in these children's lives. In the narration that opens the film, Guy fully admits his plan is a terrible, ill-thought-out one, but he's committed to seeing it through until the bitter, bitter end. His determination is infectious, and BAD WORDS is actually far more than just a series of tasteless jokes and situations. Even if it were just that, it would be a damn funny film, but it's also a sly study of inner turmoil and misguided revenge executed by a man well aware of his flaws but helpless to stop himself from falling victim to them. If you can see and hear past the four-letter words, there's something really impressive going on here.