A little too insistent on establishing its politically incorrect street cred, Bad Words is still a withering send-up of our kid-obsessed culture, in which childhood has been reimagined as a procession of parent-directed accomplishments. Spelling bees serve as the setting here, but it just as well could have been Little League or a cutthroat Gymboree class.
The movie stars Jason Bateman, who also makes his directing debut, as Guy Trilby, a bitter, hateful 40-year-old who has found a loophole allowing him to compete in children’s spelling bee tournaments, where he routinely crushes his pint-sized opponents. Bateman is intensely committed to the character’s insensitivity and smugness, as if he’s been waiting for a chance to shred every inkling of his nice-guy persona. Some of the biggest laughs come simply from the entitled way he sits among competitors half his size. If the un-PC insults he also delivers never quite hit that bulls-eye of being offensively clever (there’s a lot of lazy, racial humor), there’s still something delirious about watching Bateman so spiritedly deliver it.
After winning a regional tournament – the opening credits sequence depicts Guy fleeing with the trophy while being chased by a crowd of enraged parents – Guy advances to the national competition. There he meets an aggressively friendly 10-year-old named Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand) who clings to Guy, mainly because his parents make him stay at the hotel on his own in order to “build character.” What follows is essentially a riff on unhealthy mentor comedies like Bad Santa.
Bateman is intensely committed to the character’s insensitivity and smugness.
If Andrew Dodge’s script manages a clever and darkly comic twist involving Chaitanya, it also has a few significant shortcomings. A framing device involving a reporter (Kathryn Hahn) who keeps hectoring Guy to unveil his motivation builds up expectations that the reveal doesn’t quite meet. What’s more, it fails to explain his aggressive cruelty toward others, a defining trait of the character.
Instead, Bad Words is at its best when using Guy as a mirror for the spelling bee parents, whether it’s the lynch mob that goes after the tournament’s director (Allison Janney) for allowing Guy to participate or the outraged mom in a Bride of Frankenstein beehive who hysterically confronts him in a restaurant. When push comes to shove, these moms and dads can be just as ugly as him.
When it’s clicking, which is often, Bad Words is a bitter pill, especially for those of us who like to think of our children as little champions. Guy’s frequently flipped middle finger is ultimately sent in our direction. Love your kids, by all means, the movie suggests, just don’t get the idea that they must – by any means necessary – be recognized as more special than anyone else’s.