Bad Words: Toronto Review
Toronto International Film Festival, Special Presentations (Focus Features)
Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Rohan Chand, Philip Baker Hall, Allison Janney, Ben Falcone, Steve Witting
Jason Bateman directs exactly the kind of comedy Jason Bateman -- and his fans -- need.
Probably the most effective pipe bomb of misanthropic comedy since Bad Santa, Bad Words goes to one of America's most innocent institutions, the spelling bee, and not only introduces forbidden words but exposes a spirit nasty enough to contaminate the whole enterprise. Andrew Dodge's script, which refuses any attempt to make its protagonist likable but gives him lines too funny not to laugh at, must have looked like a gift from heaven to star Jason Bateman, whose big-screen outings sometimes don't get that the actor is so sympathetic his characters don't need to be. Choosing it for his debut as director, Bateman demonstrates the same knack for timing and fine shadings of attitude as he does onscreen. The pic should do great business for Focus Features, who snapped it up today.
Bateman plays Guy Trilby, a 40-year-old proofreader who evidently has a photographic memory but never got past eighth grade. That turns out to be an advantage when, for reasons he prefers not to share, Guy decides to enter spelling bees in middle age: turns out the wording of the rules makes anyone who never entered high school eligible to compete.
Eligible isn't the same thing as welcome, of course. Parents and contest officials are openly hostile to Guy, who is destroying pre-teen dreams left and right. As he progresses through regional contests toward the national event, reporter Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn) chronicles the carnage and begs him to explain why he cares about being a spelling bee champ.
It's when Guy encounters a fellow contestant, 10-year-old Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand) on the plane to nationals that the movie shows just how little it cares about risking offense. Unwilling to be engaged by any fellow human, much less an earnest and cheerful kid, Guy attempts to shut him up with the first in a string of casually racist remarks that will grow more outrageous over the course of the film.
The kid is not to be discouraged. When he mentions the minibar in his hotel room -- Guy, being tortured by the woman running the bee (Allison Janney), has been booked in a booze-free supply closet -- he finds a chink in the armor. When it becomes clear that Chaitanya's father is more worthy of Guy's disdain than he is, spending some time spoiling the kid's innocence seems like the only thing a right-minded reprobate would do.
In a night-out sequence set to the Beastie Boys, the film sends Guy and Chaitanya off on pranks and indulgences that walk right up to the line: One scene in particular offers the boy an illicit thrill that, had it progressed a step further, would break the backs of many viewers. In front of and behind the camera, Bateman plays the sequence with a casual touch that makes it charming rather than sour.
"I'm not good at ... thinking things through," Guy says in voiceover early on, copping to an immaturity that, though he recognizes it as a flaw, hardly seems to keep him up nights. The sources of his petulance become clear eventually, but aren't over-analyzed, and certainly aren't milked for personal growth -- if the film is less rancid in its humor than Bad Santa, it also has a subtler touch when delivering the sliver of redemption viewers demand.
That turnaround almost feels like one more outburst of stubbornness, in fact. Having taken the proceedings overseen by a dignified spelling-bee patriarch (Philip Baker Hall) and psyched out his competitors, turned their parents into a rowdy mob, and spelled words even William Safire would choke on, doing something a grown-up would do might be the only way left to confound people.
Production Companies: Darko Entertainment, Aggregate Films, MXN
Cast: Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Rohan Chand, Philip Baker Hall, Allison Janney, Ben Falcone, Steve Witting
Director: Jason Bateman
Screenwriter: Andrew Dodge
Producers: Jason Bateman, Sean McKittrick, Jeff Culotta, Mason Novick
Executive producers: Edward H. Hamm, Jr., Jim Garavente, Darren Demetre
Director of photography: Ken Seng
Production designer: Shepherd Frankel
Costume designer: April Napier
Music: Rolfe Kent
Editor: Tatiana S. Riegel
R, 88 minutes