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Josh Reviews Bad Words

August 15th, 2014
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I don’t believe that Jason Bateman’s directorial debut, Bad Words, got much of a theatrical release, and that is a shame because the film is absolutely dynamite, a crackling concoction of a dark, dark comedy.

Mr. Bateman stars as Guy Trilby, a forty-year-old man who exploits a loophole in the rules of the National Quill Spelling Bee competition so that he can enter.  It seems that, because he never graduated the eighth grade, he can compete, and so Guy begins a quest to defeat child after child and be crowned champion of the National Bee.

If that premise, which involves a grown man competing against children and doing his darnedest to crush their dreams (and those of their usually-overbearing parents) sounds like an amusing premise, then this is a movie for you.  I found it to be absolutely hysterical.  The film has a transgressive edge to it, and it takes a certain demented glee in mining humor from Guy’s absolutely inappropriate interactions with all of these eighth-graders.  But this isn’t a mean-spirited movie, and the comedy stays on the right side of the boundary of good taste, at least in my opinion.

Most importantly: Bad Words is very, very funny.  The film has a biting, sharp script by Andrew Dodge.  I love that the story drops us right into the middle of Guy’s Spelling Bee quest, his plan already fully-formed.  The film opens with a very funny, attention-grabbing prologue in which we see Guy competing in a Bee.  After that opening, I expected the story to flash back by a few weeks or months to tell us just what this guy was up to and how he got to this crazy place.  But no, to my delight the film just keeps moving forward, and it’s only gradually, as we watch this crazy story unfold, that we learn more about Guy’s background and just what the heck he is up to.

Jason Bateman will probably never have a better role than that of Michael Bluth on Arrested Development, but boy this is up there.  On Arrested, Mr. Bateman usually played the straight man.  But here he gets to cut loose and bring Guy Trilby to life in all of his maladjusted glory.  Mr. Bateman taps into some sort of evil inner glee in all the scenes in which we see him torturing his fellow Spelling Bee participants (and their parents), and this gives the film a crazy, I-can’t-believe-I’m-watching-this energy.  (While, as I noted above, always managing to stay on what I felt was the right side of acceptability in terms of what an audience could find humor with and still somewhat sympathize with Guy as our main character.)

The great Kathryn Hahn co-stars as Jenny, a small-time reporter who for some reason seems to be helping Guy on his crazy quest.  Ms. Hahn is a riot; she’s so great at bringing these sorts of high-strung but gloriously off-kilter women to life.  I love the love-hate relationship between Jenny and Guy, and the way the film slowly adds colors to their relationship as the film unfolds.  Mr. Bateman and Ms. Hahn have terrific comedic chemistry together.  (Though my only complaint with the film is that I wish we learned just how these two met in the first place.  It’s hard to imagine why Jenny would have started helping Guy in the first place.  I would have loved to have learned more about how these two connected.)

Allison Janney is fantastic as Dr. Bernice Deagan, the director of the National Quill Spelling Bee.  This prim woman has been the queen of her little kingdom for quite a while and, well, she doesn’t react well to Guy’s bull-in-a-china-shop disruption of her well-run little Spelling Bee.  Ms. Janney is terrific, so funny and so convincing .  It’s a small role but she nails it.

I also have to note Philip Baker Hall, who is also terrific as the elderly gentleman who is the head of the whole National Quill organization, Dr. William Bowman.  Mr. Hall is an incredible actor and he brings such gravelly gravitas to the role, serving as a terrific anchor in the midst of all the insanity in the film.  Perfect casting, and a great performance in a small but critical role.

I really loved Bad Words; I am glad I didn’t miss it.  This is a terrific film, my friends, and one well-worth your time.

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