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Bad Words – Movie Review

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Bad Words – Movie Review

Rating: B (Good)

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There is a careful line that needs to be drawn when a film’s protagonist is meant to be unpleasant and yet the audience is still supposed to be sympathetic towards him. With his feature directing debut, Jason Bateman manages to accomplish that task with a character saying some fairly offensive material and pulling some rather dirty tricks. Working with newcomer Andrew Dodge’s screenplay, Bad Words works because this spelling bee-hijacking character has some unexpected, extra layers and none of them come off as contrived, forced motivations.

The concept of an adult who finds a loophole that allows him to compete in children’s spelling bees is quite ridiculous, but from the beginning, the script makes this idea somewhat believable. The intrepid Guy Trilby has no filter and seems to spout whatever he feels is right for the moment, ethics be damned. None of this is done for shock value, but because it fits the character and his background. The latter part makes him strangely enduring and makes his journey come off as bigger than initially imagined. Jason Bateman displays his usual dead-pan comedic timing, despite taking a change in pace from his usual “nice guy” persona. In some of the funniest scenes which involve Trilby intimidating his competitors, he gets the right level of slime in the way he delivers his lines. However, Bateman does manage to nicely pull off the natural progression and development of his character, too.

With her own interesting subplot and even stealing the spotlight from Bateman is Kathryn Hahn as the journalist who sponsors his spelling bee romp. She lights up the screen whenever her character appears and her back-and-forth with Bateman is very entertaining as she tries to deal with his insults and dirty mouth. Yet, despite her occasional annoyance with him, she too finds him as fascinating as we do. In many ways, she serves as the audience representation. Philip Baker Hall also supplies strong support and even some genuine emotion as one of the spelling bee directors, who tries to desperately to keep the integrity of the competition afloat even as Trilby butts heads with parents, children and the staff alike. Meanwhile, Steve Witting provides a memorable, understated turn, proving to be a good middle man in this whole crazy situation.

The bond created between Trilby and fellow contestant Chaitanya is well-handled, going for the expected crude jokes of a child doing inappropriate things, but it’s nonetheless well-developed. The script is careful not to get rid of Trilby’s curmudgeon spirit and doesn’t follow the clichéd rule of his heart softening. If anything, he becomes even more of an arrogant character and it’s funny to see that influence descend onto his rival-slash-colleague. Rohan Chand’s performance is disappointedly unnatural, though, with Bateman providing the bulk of the comedic weight in their scenes together. It’s a credit to the script that his work doesn’t become a distraction.

After honing his directing skills on network television (including “Afternoon Delight”, my favourite episode of Arrested Development), Jason Bateman comfortably jumps to the uncensored world of feature films. He understands this isn’t a tale that requires a lot of flourishes and lets the actors and screenplay do most of the storytelling. Bateman does tend to overdo the close-up shots, with the camera zooming too close on the actors’ faces at times, but he mostly keeps that in check and calms down on this technique as the film goes on. His experience directing television does help in the climax, as he jumps between the standard film cameras and the spelling bee broadcasts. In addition to capturing real-life television editing, it also provides a bit of solid satire on the ludicrous notion that spelling bee competitions are taken seriously. When one character exclaims that millions of viewers are viewing the show, it’s about as mathematically humourous as when Oscar presenters state with a straight face that the awards ceremony is watched by a billion people.

Bad Words certainly won’t appeal to everybody with its foul-mouthed lead character. However, almost like Daffy Duck, his behaviour is actually an important element in making him a three-dimensional character and strangely likeable. Jason Bateman actually manages to make him rootable, despite his actions. This is due to his performance and careful direction, alongside Andrew Dodge’s script. While the screenplay could certainly have used some more punching-up here and there, there is a genuineness to the proceedings that allows it to not feel false or manufactured.

Review By: Stefan Ellison


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