Bad Words – A Review


I was a smart kid who I like to think grew up to be a relatively smart adult. I was one of the first people my age that knew how to read and I could read at an advanced level; when I was in first grade I amazed my classmates by being able to read and understand the books that their older siblings had for homework. I skipped a year of both math and science in middle school and there may have been thoughts to skip me a grade in elementary school until I started intentionally tanking the tests that they were giving me because I was bored with them and because they kept making me skip recess to take them. I wasn’t the smartest kid in the school, but I definitely was near the top.

However, the one thing that I was never any good at was spelling. I am a straight up terrible speller who has benefited greatly from the invention of spellcheck. I have no idea why this is such a struggle for me – you’d think someone who could read well as a child would have also developed a knack for spelling words correctly, but my brain is clearly not wired that way. I struggled with this all through school, since we were required to take spelling tests on a regular basis. I could usually recognize that a word was spelled incorrectly (probably by me) but I’d be hard pressed to tell you what the correct spelling actually was. I still can’t tell you how to spell vacuum properly. Spelling is my Achilles’ heel.

When I was in 5th grade, we had a big spelling bee for our entire grade. It was some sort of qualifier for our elementary school to go on to a bigger spelling bee; I’m a little fuzzy on the details because they wouldn’t let me sign up. Now granted, I wasn’t chomping at the bit to try and spell words in front of my peers, but one of the teachers pulled me aside and said they didn’t think I should participate. “You’re a smart girl – let’s not tip everyone off that you have trouble with this.” So while every other student in the 5th grade, regardless of ability, was spelling their little hearts out, I was nowhere to be found. I wasn’t even in the same room as the spelling bee – they gave me permission to hang out elsewhere, babysitting a kitten that someone inexplicably brought to school with the only other 5th grader that wasn’t allowed to participate in the spelling bee because he was a behavioral challenge. He and I had a fine time (I think I was supposed to be a good influence on him), though in retrospect, I question the wisdom of allowing two 10 years olds and a kitten to roam the school unsupervised. This was also the same year that we figured out how to sneak up on the roof of the school, so we probably could have used a closer eye on us. The 80s were a different time.

Perhaps because I was banned from my once chance to be in a spelling bee, I find them kind of fascinating. I’m always impressed with people that have a talent that I don’t have and there is no doubt that the kids that excel in spelling bees possess a skill that I lack. I don’t necessarily seek out the National Spelling Bee when it is on ESPN, but if I’m flipping the channels and come across it, I’ll stay and watch for a while until some homeschooled 8 year old makes me feel like an idiot.

Because I am intrigued by spelling bees and because I am a fan of raunchy comedies, I thought that Bad Words, Jason Bateman’s directorial debut, would be right up my alley. The idea that a 40 year old man found a loophole to enter a children’s spelling bee sounded particularly promising and the trailer indicated that he was going to use all sorts of inappropriate psychological warfare on his fellow competitors to throw them off their game. I also have an affinity for Bateman, who also stars, and while I’ve grown to appreciate him more as a straight man he can certainly play a jerk with the best of them; he was, after all, Derek Taylor on Silver Spoons.

Despite these encouraging elements, Bad Words ultimately was as great of a movie as I hoped it would be. The film sadly suffered from a problem common to a lot of comedies – all the funniest scenes were in the trailer. The film is tonally a little inconsistent – it isn’t quite sure what kind of movie it wants to be. It definitely dabbles in the area of raunchy comedy, but then it also tries to have a sweetness to it as well. That isn’t impossible to pull off, but it is very difficult and the movie never fully embraces either genre and is a middling hybrid at best. It is still a fun movie, but it fails to live up to its potential. A solid attempt, but not quite there.

Bateman stars as Guy Tribly, a 40 year old who has inexplicably decided to enter spelling bees intended for children. He is on some sort of quest for revenge; I think that the writers believe his motivations are more concealed than they actually are. I figured out his plan pretty quickly. Along the way, he is accompanied by his media sponsor (Kathryn Hahn) and butts heads with the leadership of the spelling bee association (Allison Janney and Philip Baker Hall). One of the young competitors, Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), tries to befriend Guy, who can’t help but be charmed a little bit by the boy. Chaitanya is the only person that Guy is remotely nice to, as he unleashes his reign of terror against any of the competitors or parents that try to get in his way.

The film struggles with finding the right balance between Guy saying vile and terrible things to people (many of whom are children) and Guy being the person that we are supposed to be rooting for. The scenes where he plays mind games with the other children in the competition are funny, but you can’t help but think that this is some pretty awful stuff to do to a child. As long as you don’t think of the consequences of his actions, it is mostly funny stuff though it does make it a heavier lift to feel any sort of sympathy for Guy. His friendship with Chaitanya softens him a bit, but even that relationship is obviously problematic. My issues aren’t so much with the acting – Bateman gives his usual solid effort and Rohan Chand is absolutely adorable – but the story just isn’t as well written as it could be. While this is a comedy, I didn’t laugh as much as I expected to; the jokes are kind of a one trick pony – see Jason Bateman say terrible things to women and children and act inappropriately. I would have liked to see a bit more creativity in the execution of the jokes or more varied targets. The premise is very creative, but the story simply doesn’t do much to elevate the concept.
It’s hard to tell how much of this is a result of just the writing and how much of it is because Bateman is a first time director. I’d put more emphasis on the writing, but I can’t discount the effect that a novice director could have on the finished product. There are some really funny people in this movie and I felt like a lot of them were ultimately wasted. When you have Allison Janney at your disposal, you best take full advantage of that.

Bad Words isn’t a bad film, but it isn’t a great film either. I was hoping that I discovered the next This is The End, but there were just too many periods where I wasn’t laughing and was a little bored with what was going on. I think a lot of my enjoyment stems from the inherent goodwill that I have for many of the people associated with the film and my earlier stated curiosity about the world of spelling bees. I did laugh occasionally and I even learned some new words (but not how to spell them – that would have been a miracle), but I unfortunately can’t say that Bad Words is worth the trip to the cinema. This would be an above average rental, but it just doesn’t hit the comedic high notes necessary to shell out your hard earned cash at the multiplex Just watch the trailer and you have seen most of the best moments. I may not be able to properly spell many words, but I do know that Bad Words spells slightly disappointing.

Bad Words opened nationwide on Friday March 28th.

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