MRR Review: "Bad Words"

Photo Credit: Focus Features

Rating: R
Length: 88 minutes
Release Date: March 28, 2014
Directed by: Jason Bateman
Genre: Comedy

"Bad Words" marks the directorial debut of actor Jason Bateman of "Arrested Development" fame. Bateman also stars in the film as a middle-aged middle school dropout who decides to enter the National Quill Spelling Bee as an adult. Bateman's character is named Guy Trilby. He is a 40 year old man out for revenge. He manages to find a loophole in the spelling bee rules that allows him to participate in a spelling bee aimed at children as an adult. The plot that results is off the wall and certainly something most audiences are unlikely to have ever seen before.

Plot Overview

During the spelling bee, Bateman's character Guy becomes friends with a 10 year old troublemaker named Chaitanya. Guy also ends up falling under the scrutiny of a reporter named Jenny Widgeon who is trying to get to the bottom of what Guy is trying to accomplish and why. Both the reporter, Jenny, and the Indian contestant Chaitanya end up learning something from Guy. He tries to teach them about really enjoying life throughout the course of the movie. For example, Guy gets Chaitanya to get involved in some strange events including an incident involving a lobster and a man's pants. The sequence also includes Guy introducing Chaitanya to the joys of swearing, drinking, looking at girls and doing unusual things with ketchup packets. Additionally, Jenny follows Guy around on the spelling bee circuit and even offers to pay for many of his expenses in exchange for exclusive rights to his strange story. Jenny and Guy end up having something of an affair, though it is not exactly the happiest of flings. The two seem strangely reluctant about their relationship. All in all though, the focus of the film, despite its many digressions, remains squarely on the unique politics of the Spelling Bee world.

The surprising thing about the film is that the backdrop is shown as much more than just a target for ridicule in this satire. The filmmakers actually put a considerable amount of effort into explaining the spelling bee world. They outline in detail all of the little protocols that go into spelling bees. It is not simply glossed over. In fact, veterans of academic contests are likely to recognize just how much effort everyone involved with the film put in to make it truly authentic. "Bad Words" even depicts all the bells and whistles of a nationally televised program, such as showing the answer to the word on the screen while the contestant is trying to spell it out.

Movie Themes

"Bad Words" is on the short side and is quite well acted. It is the sort of movie that depends entirely on the acting skills of its cast, since its plot is so simplistic. Bateman is known for often playing very dependable characters, including family man types, so his run as Guy in "Bad Words" is definitely a change of form. His character is full of savage comebacks for the endless litany of people who want to tear him down for what he is doing. After all, Guy's very presence in the spelling bee is something of a statement against a large group of people who take spelling bees very seriously. A lot of the draw of the movie comes from the funny juxtaposition between the clinical perfectly managed world of spelling bees and Guy's intense uncensored remarks. This version of the spelling bee world features sneering officials, superior parents and stuck-up children. The film's viciously grotesque humor has a down to earth quality that seeks to boot these people off of their high perches.

One major criticism of films that have plots like the one in "Bad Words" is that they almost always fall into sentimentality. Fortunately, this movie mostly avoids that trap. It is arguable that it does lapse into sentimentality to a large degree at the end, but the irreverence of the film throughout undercuts simple "feel good" sentimentality enough to win over moviegoers who hate that theme.

Overall, "Bad Words" is a film aimed directly at those who love jaded critiques of modern institutions, such as the ivory tower of academia. Those of faint of heart are not likely to be a fan of this film. The same goes for people who care about political correctness or excessive good taste. After all, "Bad Words" features Guy telling his young Indian friend to "shut his curry hole." But for those who appreciate slightly off-color humor, "Bad Words" is a considerably more intelligent offering than the vast majority of movies that work in a similar vein.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5