Movie review

'Bad Words' naughty but funny


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So wrong and yet so funny.

That is how you spell the appeal of "Bad Words," Jason Bateman's directorial debut in which he plays 40-year-old Guy Trilby, who slides through a loophole into a children's national spelling bee.

It's a subversive, dark R-rated comedy not to be confused with "Spellbound," although the documentary did help to inspire writer Andrew Dodge.

'Bad Words'

Starring: Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Rohan Chand, Allison Janney.

Rating: R for crude and sexual content, language and brief nudity.


As Guy explains in the opening narration, he lives alone, makes a living proofreading product warranties, had his feelings hurt at some point and acknowledges, "I threw a tantrum just to get attention."

And he gets plenty, from parents who initially mistake him for one of their own to the no-nonsense people who run The Golden Quill national spelling bee -- particularly the director (Allison Janney). She was the 1973 champion and with cold indignation informs Guy, "What I didn't do was use slimy gimmicks."

She tries to make his life as miserable as possible but Guy is a human version of spell check. Along for the ride is a reporter, Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), trying to write a piece about Guy and figure out why he's doing this, but also unable to resist unethically mixing business with pleasure.

Drawn into Guy's circle is 10-year-old Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), who is as friendless as Guy. The boy is conveniently staying in the same motel as Guy while his dad bunks in fancier quarters; this allows Guy and Chaitanya to bond over activities that are inappropriate and then some for a child.

"Bad Words" sheds some light on why Guy is putting himself through this ritual and ridicule and springs a few other surprises on the audience before the final words are announced, pronounced, used in a sentence and their origins plumbed.

Mr. Bateman wasn't intent, initially, on putting himself in the lead, but he knew the movie would only work if Guy could get away with saying terrible things to the child contestants or sabotaging them (one case with a tween girl goes too far for me) and not alienate the audience. But the others who could pull this off were uninterested, unavailable or not to the liking of the financial backers, so he cast himself.

You would never know this is his inaugural directing gig, working from a script by a Columbia Pictures story editor turned first-time screenwriter, given the casting, pacing, choice of music and assured tone.

He gives Guy a child's stubbornness and puts a devilish glint in his eyes, while young Rohan is irresistible as a boy whose face lights up when he talks about his favorite word or the cherished binder (he's named it) where he keeps lists of words he's memorized and their origins or when he discovers some adult delights. His role is more complex than it first appears, and he handles it like a pro.

Ms. Hahn's reporter is a hot mess, while Ms. Janney's administrator is close in tone and temperament to her animated Miss Grunion in "Mr. Peabody & Sherman." Other familiar faces in the cast include Philip Baker Hall and Ben Falcone.

"Bad Words," which has a bit of the "Bad Santa" spirit but nowhere near as many f-words, will make you laugh and then hang your head in slight shame. And then laugh again.

 


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.

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