Jason Bateman as Guy Trilby
Kathryn Hahn as Jenny Widgeon
Rohan Chand as Chaitainya Chopra
Philip Baker Hall as Dr.
Allison Janney as Dr. Bernice Deagan
Ben Falcone as Pete Fowler
Anjul Nigam as Sriram
Bobby Ramnarine as Chaitainya’s Mom
Connor Kalopsis as Eric Tai
Rachael Harris as Eric Tai’s Mother
Emily Sarah Carlson as Joyce Saks
Jacquie Barnbrook as Joyce Saks Mom
Kimleigh Smith as Marzipan
Beth Grant as Irene
Patricia Belcher as Ingrid
Michael Patrick McGill as Beet-Red Father
Ethan Dizon as Ricky
Bob Stephenson as Bill Murhoff
Greg Cromer as Jeremy
Steve Witting as Proctor
Matthew Zhang as Braden
Madison Hu as Ling Quan
Directed by Jason Bateman
40-year-old Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) has something to prove and he’s doing so by using a loophole in spelling bee bylaws to enter himself as a contestant in order to make his way to the prestigious national Golden Quill spelling bee. With Jenny (Kathryn Hahn), a journalist, as his ever-present companion trying to figure out why he’s doing it, the bitter foul-mouthed Guy ends up befriending a young Indian boy named Chaitainya (Rohan Chand), who makes him rethink his motives.
The premise for Jason Bateman’s directorial debut is about as simple and high concept as one could get, to the point where the movie immediately jumps feet first into the idea of a snarky middle-aged man gatecrashing kids’ spelling bees from the very opening scene. Most parents are angered by Guy’s intrusion into something their kids have been studiously preparing for, some their entire lives, but Guy makes his way to the national Golden Quill forcing the administrative Dr. Deagan (Allison Janney) do do whatever she cans to trip Guy up and get him knocked out of the bee.
Working from a screenplay by Andrew Dodge, Bateman tackles his feature film directorial debut with gusto, turning what could have been a rather stale premise into something that keeps you engaged throughout. At first, it might seem like we’re just going to watch his character Guy go from one spelling bee to the next, intimidating kids into messing up their words, but on his flight to California, Guy encounters an inquisitive young Indian boy named Chaitainya, who is also heading to the Golden Quill. What at first seems like a one-off gag of Guy trying to deal with an annoying kid on an airplane actually introduces a character who will play a large part in Guy’s journey, Chaitainya slowly becoming Guy’s unlikely friend and eventually his rival as the Golden Quill gets down to its last few contestants.
Bateman has clearly learned a lot from the directors he’s worked with, particularly Seth Gordon and Jason Reitman, the former in terms of not holding back and knowing when to break away from the written dialogue, the latter in finding the heart and soul within a deliberately unlikable character. Generally, it’s just nice seeing Bateman doing something different, not playing the straight man to someone else for once, although Guy is so unpleasant to everyone around him, it’s sometimes hard to fully like him.
Bateman has a great counterpart in Kathryn Hahn, who continues to prove she can bounce between humor and drama without missing a beat. She plays an interesting role as a journalist, who is along for the ride to try to figure out Guy’s motives as they end up sleeping together a number of times, much to her own disgust.
At first, young Rohan Chand seems like another one of those annoying kids we see introduced into so many indie movies to try to soften up an unrepentant main character, but Chand’s enthusiasm goes a long way in counterbalancing Guy’s cynicism and quite remarkably, the young actor holds himself quite well against Bateman.
That’s not to say that all the gags are fresh, as it’s a little old hat and obvious calling an Indian kid “Slumdog” at this point in time, but the script is generally a strong one and Bateman and his cast do a good job keeping things moving.
Most of the film we have no idea why Guy is so obsessed with winning the Golden Quill, though once his motivations are revealed, things start to turn darker and more dramatic. This isn’t that uncommon for comedies like this, although it’s a fairly smooth transition in this case with the last act featuring a particularly strong performance by Philip Baker Hall in a role that’s as deep as the one he played in PT Anderson’s “Magnolia.”
The Bottom Line:
As much as “Bad Words” often goes for easy laughs with its simple premise, Jason Bateman’s delivery and his direction turn the movie into something more thoughtful and entertaining than it might have been going by the initial set-up.
Bad Words opens in limited release on Friday, March 14 and then expands into more cities on March 21 and nationwide on March 28.