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In today’s overly cautious culture of political correctness, it’s refreshing to have a subversive comedy of all-out annihilation. Bad Words, loaded with uproariously mean-spirited jokes in service of a genuinely creepy character (albeit one played by a likable movie star), takes no prisoners in its tale of a forty-year-old failure out to win a national spelling bee by cruelly dispatching its young contestants.
In his directorial debut, poker-faced Jason Bateman is misanthrope Guy Trilby, who upends elementary spelling bees and eventually enters a national contest through a loophole—contestants must never have finished the eighth grade, something this rebellious dropout with an exceedingly high IQ never quite got around to.
Yet Guy lacks focus and drive, making a living as a proofreader of product warranties. With the help of an accompanying journalist and sex partner (the very funny Kathryn Hahn) who wants to scoop his “real” story, Guy embarks on winning the prestigious Golden Quill National Spelling Bee and its $50,000 prize, quickly becoming the pariah of both incensed parents and the uptight bee director, played by the great Allison Janney in another of her wonderfully off-center loonies. She has guy relegated to the hotel closet in lieu of an actual room, but that doesn’t stop him from raining expletives and sexual insults on anyone in earshot—parents, contestants and administrators.
Guy tentatively warms to nine-year-old fellow contestant Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), a verbosely precocious wonder-kid Guy nicknames “Slumdog,” each trying to outmaneuver the other. In some of the picture’s funniest moments, the pair hit the town for a rapid-fire coming of age sequence involving underage drinking, sexual talk, prostitute fondling, profanity and a truly inspired gag involving ketchup and pavement. Yet there is more, concerning the crusty tournament creator (Phillip Baker Hall) who may hold the key to Guy’s obsession and figures importantly in the final word showdown.
On it goes, Guy scaring off the competition by suggesting parental infidelities and the arrival of inconveniently timed periods (yes, that’s right), all very funny. Yet Dodge’s clever screenplay isn’t content to simply be a gag-machine, and doesn’t shy from the neuroses plaguing Bateman’s smartest guy in the room—and the actor/director, so often cast in broad comedies that require him to be a beleaguered everyman (the exception being his terrific dramatic work in last year’s Disconnect), plays it all very straight, never tossing off insults for laughs, but rather because his Guy knows no other way.
As a director, Bateman’s chief focus is on getting his actors to deliver perfectly timed comedy, and there’s nothing particularly special about the film’s technique, style or form. He also displays a sure hand with the film’s final act, where it could have easily dipped into sentiment, keeping its nihilistic edge right until the last shot.