FilmReview

Review: “Bad Words” Offers a Darker Take on the Traditional Spelling Bee

Marissa Tandon ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Jason Bateman in Bad Words. Photo Credit: Sam Urdank/Focus Features.
Jason Bateman in Bad Words. Photo Credit: Sam Urdank/Focus Features.

Jason Bateman is rapidly becoming one of the biggest names in feature film comedy. Best known for his role as Michael Bluth in Arrested Development, he has been heavily featured in ensemble cast comedies, such as Identity Thief, The Change-Up, and Horrible Bosses. His wry humor works well when balanced in duos or bro comedies, but the question remained: could he carry a full film on his own?

Bad Words answers that question with an emphatic “yes.” The film centers around Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman), a 40-year-old who proofreads instruction manuals for a living. He decides to enter an 8th grade national spelling bee, the Golden Quill, under a loophole that states participants must not have passed the 8th grade on or before the date of the competition. Since Guy never passed the 8th grade, he finds himself eligible for the competition, and the film follows him as he angers children, parents, and educators on his one-man mission.

Related: Jason Bateman Spells Out His Experience With “Bad Words”

The film is fast-paced and almost jarringly hilarious, filled with offensive and absurd humor. With a protagonist that doesn’t seem to know what the term “brain-to-mouth filter” means, audiences will be kept on their toes as Guy Trilby combats his critics with unrepentant, mean-spirited humor and quick wit. Combined with the unlikely and somehow heartwarming friendship between Guy and his eleven-year-old competitor, Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), Guy corrupts the audience just enough to worm his way into their hearts.

Jason Bateman and Kathryn Hahn in Bad Words. Photo Credit: Sam Urdank/Focus Features.
Jason Bateman and Kathryn Hahn in Bad Words. Photo Credit: Sam Urdank/Focus Features.

For a while, the audience is kept in the dark as to why, exactly, Guy is on this quest to ruin the sanctity of an eighth grade spelling bee. Did he have a particularly heartbreaking loss when he was the acceptable age to compete? Is he bitter about the way his life panned out? Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), reporter for the Click and Scroll and Guy Trilby’s sponsor, aims to get these answers for her profile on Guy’s journey through the Golden Quill. The eventual answer is unexpected and heartbreaking, bringing a bit of reality into the otherwise constant stream of abrasive comedy.

The movie itself is a great accomplishment for both Jason Bateman and screenwriter Andrew Dodge, as Bad Words marks their debuts as director and screenwriter, respectively. The film was shot independently and distributed through Focus Features, which gives it an interesting feel. Everything from the coloring to the soundtrack to the plot twist feels like an independent film; the humor is able to be both charming and abrasive, where larger studio films tend to rely heavily on absurdist and shock value humor. The independent production of Bad Words worked well for the script, allowing what may have come off as an incredibly unlikable character to translate in a fun way to the screen. With Focus handling distribution, the smaller production feel has the benefit of being marketed in a mass way, reaching a large, mainstream audience.

The film isn’t perfect; it does, frequently, rely on a retrospective voice over to add a sense of regret to Guy Trilby that in some ways feels like an easy way out in terms of character development. Without it, it’s highly likely that audiences would be left with a bad taste in their mouths concerning Guy’s actions, instead of finding a small soft spot for him. That soft spot is necessary for viewers to buy into the humor of his actions; however, it does sometimes feel like a bit of an obvious crutch.

Jason Bateman and Rohan Chand in Bad Words. Photo Credit: Sam Urdank/Focus Features.
Jason Bateman and Rohan Chand in Bad Words. Photo Credit: Sam Urdank/Focus Features.

Bad Words creates a human and relatable character in Guy Trilby, and offers audiences the chance to find out what happens when you take the chance to confront your past. It’s an enjoyable, jarring comedy with just the right amount of reality peppered in that makes the film relatable to a wide array of audiences. Jason Bateman, who also makes his directorial debut with Bad Words, says everything viewers wish they could on a daily basis, and at the most unexpected moments, tugs on your heartstrings. While Bad Words may not be the best film for family movie night, it’s definitely a must see for those who enjoy cynical, abrasive humor.

Overall Grade: B+

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