By: Bill Graham
Not every secret needs to be grand or profound. Sometimes, like in BAD WORDS, a secret can simply work to keep a film going. That subtlety, the letting off the gas instead of stepping on the brakes, is hard to accomplish because it requires a deft touch of tone. That is a highlight of the direction by actor Jason Bateman who doubles as a first-time film director here. With a keen sense of humor that bounces between gasp-worthy to simply hilarious, this dark comedy leaves few curse words unturned and might even expand your own vocabulary in the process. Even more of a balancing act has to be carefully worked to create the character that is insufferable to nearly everyone around him while keeping the audience on his side.
The film revolves around a forty-something Guy Trilby (Bateman) who is encroaching on the world of spelling bees. Certainly he understands that the competition is meant for children, but he also has a thorough understanding of all the rules and has exploited a loophole much to the chagrin of the organizers and more importantly, the parents of the fellow contestants. Sponsoring him in the contest—a requirement—is reporter Jenny (Kathryn Hahn) who is just as clueless about Trilby’s reasons for entering the contest but desperately tries to get him to open up. Thing is, Trilby is even more determined to keep his reasons to himself. He seems wounded at times and unless he wants to speak to someone, he rarely gives those he encounters much of a chance to make an impression. He sidesteps them, mostly in abrupt forms of “don’t talk to me”s that get increasingly rude (and hilarious) the longer someone tries to make chit chat.
Written by Andrew Dodge, the screenplay made the Black List in 2011, an honor given to the “most liked” un-produced screenplays of a current year decided upon film industry development executives and professionals. The implication is that the film worked well on the page and happily it works just as well on the screen. Trilby has command of the English language and hurls insults in vivid detail. But he is unable to shake a fellow contestant named Chaitainya Chopra (Rohan Chand) who naively attempts to befriend Trilby. This naivety becomes, in many ways, the heart of the film as their chemistry and young Chopra’s story are endlessly charming. He is the somewhat stereotypical Indian-American contestant that is without a clue as to how to navigate his middle school years despite his intelligence, but he turns into much more of a dynamic presence as the film rolls along.
It’s easy to see where many people might simply be put off by the darkness of the comedy in Bad Words. Few punches are pulled as Trilby torments the people he is around, both young and old. He seems to gleam little joy from the constant insults or his progression in the spelling bee world, yet his drive keeps the film moving at a brisk pace. Clocking in under 90 minutes, the pace is indeed quick yet there is an uncommon amount of development because the film thankfully focuses on just a few characters. Surely the comedy is vile at times, but it manages to keep from sliding into something worse. There are unexpected charms to be found in Bad Words and a lot of the credit has to be given to the acting and direction of Bateman who navigates the satire with aplomb.