Jason Bateman has been directing television episodes since back in his Valerie days when he was 20 years old, but in Bad Words he makes his feature directorial debut with one of the most genuinely hilarious, shame-laugh movies to come along in a while. Based on the Black List script written by Andrew Dodge, Bad Words contains the kind of misanthropic, offensive-to-sensitive audiences comedy you’re only likely to see in shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The League combined with the manic energy of an early Apatow film, the wit of Election, and delivered with the perfect Jason Bateman deadpan.
In fact, Bad Words is the most smugly, Bateman-esque comedy of Bateman’s career.
The story centers on salty, sarcastic, foul-mouthed Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman), a 40-year-old genius with a photographic memory who has exploited a loophole and entered into a grade-school spelling bee for reasons that aren’t immediately clear. Trilby is obviously not welcomed, either by the school or the other kids’ parents, but rules are rules, and Trilby is not there to make friends, goddamnit. He’s there to dominate and humiliate the eighth graders and work himself up toward the National Spelling Bee, ruining as many childhood dreams as possible along the way.
Along for the ride is Jenny Widgeon (the always fantastic Kathryn Hahn), who plays a journalist who sponsors Trimbly in order to get the story on why he decided to enter. Trilby chooses to remain coy, even as the two frequently hate-f*ck between spelling bee sessions.
A complication arises when Trilby meets 10-year-old Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), with whom Trilby unexpectedly bonds, but not quite in the formulaic ways you’d expect. Chopra is a sweet Indian kid with an asshole, absentee father, and when Trilby takes him under his wing, he introduces him to foul words, tequila shots, a spectacular series of pranks, and a prostitute. Basically, Trilby is a terrible person, similar in spirit to Billy Bob Thornton’s character in Bad Santa, and he inflicts his terribleness upon Chopra. Still, there’s an undeniable connection between the two, which forces a conflict in their inevitable spelling-bee showdown.
In addition to Bateman, Hahn, and a precocious kid-actor who manages not to be irritating, Bad Words also boasts excellent comedic performances from Allison Janney, as the director of the National Spelling Bee; Rachael Harris, as an outraged parent; and Ben Falcone and Philip Baker Hall, as the Spelling Bee announcers.
Bad Words works to hilarious effect because it doesn’t temper any of the humor. It’s not aiming for a PG-13 rating, and it’s not trying not to offend. It gets out of its own damn way, and exploits every punchline imaginable — from terrorist stereotypes to pedophilia jokes to flappy vaginas — without concern with who it will shock or offend. It’s likely to be a huge word-of-mouth hit, which is why it was smart of Focus Features to debut it in America at SXSW and roll it out nationwide, platform style. It may not ultimately end up being a huge hit (although, I can definitely envision a slow, Bridesmaids-like success), but it will definitely resonate with comedy nerds.
Bad Words made it’s U.S. debut at Austin’s SXSW Festival