MOVIE REVIEW: BAD WORDS (2014)
By Michael Arruda
BAD WORDS (2014), a new comedy directed by and starring Jason Bateman, is— well, bad. It’s more than bad. It’s awful. What attracted Bateman to this project is a mystery to me.
BAD WORDS is about a bitter forty year-old man Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) who enters a middle school spelling bee with every intention of winning it and then moving on to win at the national level. Even though school officials and parents try to prevent Trilby from participating, they are powerless to do so because Trilby has read the rules, and he fits within the parameters. For example, the rules state that a participant must not have advanced beyond the eighth grade, and Trilby never went to high school. The rules also state that participants must be sponsored by a national media outlet, and Trilby is sponsored by an online publication, whose lead reporter Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn) follows Trilby around trying to learn his “fascinating” story as to why at age forty he wants to win a spelling bee.
Trilby wins the spelling bee and moves on to the national competition. The coordinator of the national spelling bee, Dr. Bernice Deagan (Allison Janney) assures parents not to worry, that there is no way Trilby will win the event, especially since he hasn’t gone beyond an eighth grade education. However, what Deagan doesn’t know is that Trilby happens to be a genius with a photographic memory. He’s not about to lose.
This doesn’t stop Deagan from trying to make things as difficult as possible for Trilby. For example, she arranges for the hotel to only offer him a storage closet for a room, with just a bed. It doesn’t even have a bathroom, but Trilby is undeterred. Just why is he so determined to win this spelling bee? That’s the question everyone wants to know.
A young boy, Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand) with no friends decides that Trilby is the best guy ever and tries to be his best buddy. Trilby, being the acrimonious man that he is, does his best to tell the cute kid to screw off, but the boy is persistent, and before you know it, the two are buddies. However, Trilby learns that Chai isn’t as innocent as he seems, setting the stage for a competition in the finals between Trilby and the boy. Seriously?
If this sounds exciting to you, you might like BAD WORDS. I for one found it to be one of the oddest and most unlikable movies I’ve seen in a long time.
For starters, the main character Guy Trilby is an extremely unpleasant character. His mouth is a sewer, and he uses words as weapons, ambushing people left and right, which in the right circumstances— if the targets are deserving of these put downs, for example— could be really funny. But this isn’t the case in this movie, as Trilby vents his angry language at young children and their parents. He’s really not a nice guy. In fact, he’s downright merciless. Now, I wouldn’t have a problem with any of this if in fact he and this film were funny, but the sad truth is, the film takes on a dark tone rather than a comedic one, and never generates the types of laughs needed to make this a successful comedy.
And that’s because the driving force of this movie is the question, why is Trilby so intent on winning this spelling bee? What in his past has made him this bitter? That’s what Jenny the reporter spends nearly the whole movie trying to find out. And once we find out, it’s just not that compelling a reason, and it certainly doesn’t justify Trilby’s behavior. He’s not the first person to experience this particular problem.
Trilby comes off as such an obnoxious character, he’s nearly impossible to like, and I certainly didn’t care what happened to him, nor did I feel any sympathy for him because of his unpleasant past.
Strangely, BAD WORDS plays more like a drama than a comedy. We have this bitter man intent on winning a spelling bee, and he’s not above sabotaging the efforts of both the other children and their parents. Handled in an over-the-top way, this movie could have been amusing, but the film plays it straight. The “comedy” supposedly comes from Trilby’s foul-mouthed tirades, but the problem is they’re not comical. Instead, his words come off as mean and hurtful, and there’s just not much that’s funny about that.
Then there’s the relationship between Trilby and the young boy Chai. Their buddy antics are supposed to be humorous, but again, they are anything but. Trilby’s behavior with the boy should have gotten him arrested. Let’s see, he brings the boy to a bar and buys him alcohol, takes him to see a stripper, teaches him to steal, encourages him to play mean practical jokes on people, and takes him on a high speed chase in a car. Yeah. Nice role model. Now, I would be ready to forgive all this if in fact the story was funny. But the bottom line is BAD WORDS is not funny.
The screenplay by Andrew Dodge is exceedingly odd. Let’s start with the premise. The idea of a grown man entering a middle school spelling bee is a strange one. I’ll admit. I was somewhat curious about it, but within the first five minutes of the film my curiosity was replaced with repugnance. Guy Trilby is such a despicable person, I couldn’t believe I was going to have to sit through a 90 minute movie about this guy. And since he’s the main character in this comedy, he’s the main reason the comedy doesn’t work.
Let’s watch Guy sabotage his fellow student participants. Let’s watch him pour ketchup on a chair and convince a young girl that she’s having her first period, humiliating her to the point where she can’t take the stage. Let’s watch him verbally attack and assault a young boy’s mother. Let’s watch him get a young boy drunk. You get the idea.
I may have laughed once during this movie.
Why Jason Bateman chose to direct this movie I have no idea. As Guy Trilby, Bateman is okay, but it’s such a weird character. He’s too vicious to be funny, and his background story just isn’t dark enough to justify his behavior.
Then there’s the cute kid, Chai, played with sweet enthusiasm by Rohan Chand, who seems to be in this movie for the sole purpose of being corrupted by Guy Trilby.
Kathryn Hahn is okay as reporter Jenny Widgeon, and Allison Janney does what she can in a dull role as Dr. Bernice Deagan. Janney is a very good actress who deserves better film roles than this.
However you slice it or spell it, BAD WORDS is pretty bad. In Spelling Bee speak, it’s simply flagitious.
I give it one knife.