Published Mar 27, 2014There's something inherently ridiculous about all of the rigid pageantry involved in a high-stakes spelling bee. Jason Bateman's directorial debut, Bad Words, mines the world of overachieving 10-year-olds for some big laughs by having a vulgar 40-year-old misanthrope worm his way into the competition through a loophole in the rules, but it hews a little too close to the path already carved out by the bad Santas and Grandpas that came before.
Bateman pulls double-duty by also starring as Guy Trilby, a proofreader of product warranties who earns a spot in the televised national finals by crushing the hopes of those a quarter his age in the regional event with workmanlike precision and an uncouth demeanour. Out to somehow settle an ambiguous grudge by being named the best speller in the country, Guy is opposed in his quest by Dr. Bernice Deagan (a perfectly cast Alison Janney), who is Queen Bee (get it?) running the show.
Because every entrant is required to be accompanied by a media outlet, Guy has Jenny (Kathryn Hahn) tag along with him, a thinly stretched online writer who loathes him when not occasionally trying to pry at his hidden intentions or sleeping with him. Crammed into a storage closet at the hotel in a show of how unwanted his presence is at the competition, Guy reluctantly finds himself falling into an unlikely friendship with Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), a cute and persistent spelling rival staying by himself in the room next door.
It seems preordained that Guy will surely have his cold heart melted by the warm innocence of Chaitanya, but Bateman and the screenplay by Andrew Dodge deserve some credit for creating an uncompromisingly repulsive protagonist. Though it becomes clear early on that much of the humour will hinge on pure shock value, there is undeniably some sick pleasure to be had in some of the terrible things Guy says and does throughout. Even when he inevitably starts lightening up a little with the kid, it's only to introduce him to the wonderful worlds of boobs and booze.
There are a few lulls when the film intermittently turns serious to move the plot along and the ultimate reveal of Guy's motives are largely disappointing, but for a comedy so intent on pushing the envelope, it's ironic that the biggest problem may be how derivative it all ends up coming across. We can expect that Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg, the hack comedic minds behind parody films like Disaster Movie and Epic Movie, now have more than enough material on their hands to begin work on Bad Movie.