Share & Connect
The question “what makes an underachiever?” has preoccupied parents, psychologists and educators since time immemorial. This hot button forms the intrigue for much of Jason Bateman’s directorial feature debut ‘Bad Words’, but it’s mere bait-and-switch for a barely-appropriate black comedy. From the outset we’re introduced to Guy Trilby, an embittered 40-year-old middle school dropout who weasels into a prestigious children’s spelling bee, qualifying because he never passed the 8th grade.
Trilby, played by Bateman of the acclaimed “Arrested Development” narrates his mediocrity in a laudably frank voice-over. “I’m not that good at a lot of stuff, especially thinking things through. But my feelings were hurt,” he confesses. But then he opens his mouth and we realize that this piece of work has the most abrasive tongue since Ozzy Osbourne.
“Hey moms, let’s break out the rubber pillowcases tonight. Little pr**ks are gonna be counting tears, not sheep,” he catcalls after his victory at the Columbus Ohio Regional Spelling Bee. His competing against pre-teens a quarter of his age incenses parents and the organizing committee (as one outraged father exclaims, some parents spend thousands of dollars on linguistic coaches). But Trilby takes it all in good humor, reveling in their fury.
Before long, he’s taking the nationals – held in Los Angeles – by storm. Sponsoring him in the hopes of decoding his motives is messy-haired, loose-principled reporter Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn) who writes for the satirically named online newspaper ‘The Click and Scroll’. Bateman’s brand of deadpan satire that walks the fine line of propriety immerses us in Trilby’s world, where he calmly tells the mother of a contestant that her vagina resembles a “blown-out sweat sock” and slips a live lobster into an occupied toilet cubicle – with hilarious consequences.
But Bateman dangles the “why is he doing this?” carrot before us so expertly that Trilby’s overt hatred of the world only makes us yet more curious about his seemingly sociopathic state of mind that we pardon all plebeianism.
On the plane to Los Angeles he meets 10-year-old Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), who embodies every racial stereotype (tough love parenting, excessive studiousness) associated with the Middle East. “My dad says Economy Class builds character,” he chirps after introducing himself. Unsurprisingly, Trilby tells the boy to point his “curry hole” the other way or he’ll tell the captain his bag is ticking.
Of course, only a child can melt the steely exterior of a misanthropist – think Disney’s ‘Despicable Me’ – but at least Bateman does not expect us to find this cliché cute. The two venture out for a night of soda-fuelled hedonism (although we fleetingly see 10-year-old Chaitanya downing shots from under the table). Watching the PG-rated corruption of this youngster as they visit a red-light district, a nightclub and gorge on chilli fries – a slow-motion montage of bad behavior to a bad-ass soundtrack – is a refreshing break from the hallowed halls of academia.
We see Trilby start to care about someone other than himself, even bringing the boy a copy of ‘Maxim’ men’s magazine, but without making the dramatic license mistake of becoming a big softie – neither does the doe-eyed Chaitanya become an expletive-slinging little urchin. Let the innocence of childhood be.
Admittedly, ‘Bad Words’ is not the lowest common denominator of satire; it’s saved by some truly delicious dialogue by newcomer screenwriter Andrew Dodge. But Bateman never addresses the wider context of Trilby’s character – such as why he dropped out of 8th grade when his transcript evidenced signs of genius – and it’s the borderline-sadistic pranks that keep the spelling bee interesting (such as smearing ketchup on a contestant’s chair to humiliate her into thinking her period has started).
‘Bad Words’ undersells a multifaceted character whose acidic spite is shoe-horned into a very common pigeon hole . Trilby’s motives for upending the first televised national spelling bee is not quite the bombshell one had hoped for, but ‘Bad Words’ is one hell of a ride if you don’t mind a few loose ends.
Image credit: Bad Words Official Site