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‘Bad Words’ Review

Bad Words Review
Focus Features

“I’m not that good at a lot of stuff, especially thinking things through.”

Nope, Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) really isn’t so good at thinking things through, but the bad choices that pepper Bateman’s directorial debut, ‘Bad Words,’ go so far beyond misplaced common sense that Guy’s early and wholly understated confession about his decision-making style is perhaps the last actually relatable bit of the entire film. A black comedy with a black heart, Bateman’s ‘Bad Words’ knowingly attempts to push the envelope of unlikability, littering the big screen with pintsized victims and one heck of a mangled word-centric competition. Often funny by virtue of its shock value and Guy’s clever wordsmithery, ‘Bad Words’ still doesn’t feel quite so great going down, but it at least announces Bateman’s directorial sensibilities loud and clear, and there’s plenty here to mine for future projects.

Bateman’s film opens at a small town spelling bee, a stopping point on the way to the big show — The Golden Quill — and Guy’s first foray into stepping on stage to decimate a flock of competitors who haven’t even hit puberty yet. Guy’s infiltration of the spelling bee world is surprisingly easy — he doesn’t even need to utilize an actual loophole to enter competitions, it’s really just a poorly worded bylaw that allows him into the fold — and while the film offers a jaw-droppingly hilarious exchange between Guy and the bee’s brass, Andrew Hodge’s debut script spends far too little time detailing Guy’s entertainingly weird ascension to the big leagues.

Instead, Guy is rocketed to the big time, and most of the action of ‘Bad Words’ takes place at The Golden Quill, with Guy toying with his competitors, the bee’s management, the press, and most of the bee-loving world. It’s no coincidence that this is the first year the competition has been televised (and Bateman’s choice to occasionally switch over to the National Public Television “live feed” of the event is a fine addition to the film, and very funny). Guy is both unnervingly ruthless and admirably shameless — he doesn’t flinch, and that is almost enough to convince the film’s audience that all the horrible things they’re seeing play out onscreen are acceptable, at least to laugh at for a brief period of time. Guy’s bad attitude, bad behavior, and, yes, his bad words do prove to be intermittently satisfying, at least when they are hurled at deserving targets, but he so often takes out his frustration (and exacts his plan, whatever it may be) on the wrong people (including lots of kids) that it’s hard to invest in him to any extent.

The film presents a bit of a “chicken and egg” scenario – is Guy a jerk because people are jerks to him, or are people jerks to Guy because he’s a jerk to them? – and never quite answers itself. ‘Bad Words’ does, however, try to soften Guy up a bit, particularly when it comes to his relationship with a tiny bee champ, the sweet-faced Chaitainya (Rohan Chand). Initially resistant to Chaitainya’s charms, Guy eventually gives in and makes a friend out of his pint-sized competitor, a relationship deepened by his relentless contributions to the kid’s juvenile delinquency, most of which is energetically explained away in a fast-moving and strangely edited montage.

Elsewhere, Kathryn Hahn, who is able to delight in even the most thankless and ill conceived of roles, continues such work here as Jenny, a drab and ditzy journalist who tags along with Guy to ostensibly pen a story about him. Jenny is, however, markedly terrible at her job, unable to extract answers from her subject even as he fleeces her for official sponsorship, a ton of expenses, and even the odd (emphasis on odd) sexual encounter. Kitted out in awkward and ill-fitting outfits, Jenny is surely styled to be a dweeb and a misfit, which makes her strange attraction to Guy feel still weirder and misguided.

While the film attempts to hinge on the third act reveal of just why Guy is pursuing such a stupid goal, its ultimate reveal doesn’t do much to temper and explain the vast number of truly terrible things he’s done in the interim. Without giving too much away, Guy’s motivations partially stem from some dissatisfaction in his childhood, so it’s particularly prickly that he exacts his revenge by taking down innocent children, many of whom might never recover from the exceedingly public and personal humiliations he heaps on them.

Tonally, ‘Bad Words’ serves as something as a companion piece to Jim Field Smith’s 2011 ‘Butter,’ which similarly mocked strange skill competitions and the weirdos that populate them (in the case of ‘Butter,’ said strange skill competition was a butter-carving contest), all in a bid to say something deep about larger complications. Like ‘Butter,’ however, the aims of ‘Bad Words’ don’t shoot straight, and its messaging and meaning remains woefully obscured and unsatisfying.

‘Bad Words’ premieres in theaters on Friday, March 14.

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