Guy Trilby, a disagreeable 40-year-old, is on a quest to conquer a national spelling bee, using a serious loophole in eligibility rules, a photographic memory and a thirst for … we aren’t sure what. Redemption? Revenge? Chaos, or maybe closure?
As it turns out, Guy’s motivation for trying to destroy everything the spelling bee stands for only half explains how this otherwise normal-looking middle-aged man came to despise practically everyone and everything in the world around him.
Jason Bateman, directing his first feature film “Bad Words,” stars as the single-minded sociopath, a man unconcerned about the feelings of others and possibly unaware that others actually have feelings. His manner as he steamrolls his way into the spelling bees (the loophole is that contestants cannot have passed eighth grade, and he never did) is purposeful and guarded, while his language is hateful and vulgar to the extreme. Even when he doesn’t use actual profanities, everything he says sounds like a curse, if it’s not a threat.
Guy’s encounters make you cringe, but like a man on a burning high-wire, it is fascinating to watch.
Bateman, who has made a career as the smart or hapless straight man, owns this character, so cool and understated while making his vile observations that Guy becomes both crazy and believable. He speaks to almost everything with a careless disregard; his meanness might be steeped in obscenity but there is little overt anger.
Guy’s behavior is shocking and can be shockingly funny – the movie is a comedy, but it gets its edge from Bateman’s unflinching commitment to being a jerk.
As it turns out, Guy is only the least likable person in a movie filled with characters who are perfectly comfortable with putting their own interests first. That includes the shameless reporter (Kathryn Hahn) whose Internet “news organization” is sponsoring Guy; the strict spelling bee director (a great Allison Janney) who stops at nothing to try to topple the interloper; the bee’s sanctimonious founder (Phillip Baker Hall) who preaches about his success in dodging any ill consequences from past mistakes; and even Chaitanya Chopra, a doe-eyed little boy and fellow contestant who only wants Guy to be his friend – or so he says.
Out of boredom and an interest in the contents of the kid’s mini-bar, Guy goes along with Chaitanya’s (Rohan Chand) relentless efforts to buddy up. Chaitanya is a winning counterpoint to Guy’s global contempt, cheerfully acknowledging that he has no friends, that his parents treat him like a trained pet and that his favorite word is “subjugate.”
Chaitanya’s only real friend is the computer he studies with: “He’s cool and he’s smart, and that’s why I named him Todd,” he says.
Sensing a chance for gratuitous mischief in his downtime, Guy adopts the little fellow and shows him a whole new world on a vivid, implausible night on the town that includes vulgar pranks, bad driving, shoplifting and a quickie peep show.
Bateman succeeds as a director by not trying to insert the real world in Guy’s life, or by not making us buy into his nasty agenda. As Guy says in narration partway through the film, “I could have stopped then, but that would have required the kind of lessons I was never taught.”
Guy achieves his goal, sort of, and the movie could have stopped then. The fact that it goes on a few minutes more for the “happy” ending just shows that Bateman and screenwriter Andrew Dodge are no match for Guy, who in his version of life would have simply walked away.
Starring: Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Allison Janney, Rohan Chandames
Director: Jason Bateman
Running time: 89 minutes
Rating: R for profuse profanity, crudity, sexual content and nudity.
The Lowdown: A foulmouthed 40-year-old man uses a loophole to compete in and dominate a national spelling bee for reasons only he knows.