Around nine years ago, I saw this movie called Fuck; it was a documentary about profanity, and specifically how the titular word was the best one. It was one of the last things I remember seeing Hunter S. Thompson in while he was still alive. You might be familiar with the word, but if you're young and somehow haven't come across it until you found this review, it has its own scene in A Christmas Story. Ralphie calls it the "queen mother of dirty words," but in the movie he says "fudge." But he didn't say "fudge." He said "fuck." Hence, the soap in the mouth. Don't say it out loud, kids.
Bad Words contains the "fudge" word and a whole bunch of other ones, some that aren't even curse words. Like floccinaucinihilipilification, which is a word that 40 year old Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) has to spell when he uses an obscure loophole to enter a spelling bee for middle school students. We first meet Guy arguing that he's perfectly eligible because he didn't complete the 8th grade by the cut-off year and then threatens to shut down the Spelling Bee if he can't compete. When he wins, he's chased out of the school by angry parents, but Guy has the trophy, and more importantly, he's going to the Golden Quill Spelling Bee Tournament.
Guy's sponsor, Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn) is a reporter along for the ride, and while he promised her insight into why a grown man with a photographic memory is competing with pre-teens, he hasn't been very forthcoming. Instead, he drinks a lot and makes enemies with everybody he meets. His presence is even less welcome at the Golden Quill, with the director of the program, Dr. Bernice Deagan (Allison Janney) promising to make his life miserable (starting with booking the utilities closet as his hotel room). The founder of the Golden Quill, Dr. Bowman (Philip Baker Hall) takes great umbrage a Guy's temerity, but he's technically playing by the rules. Except, of course, when he isn't: even though Guy has no problem spelling any word given to him, he still feels the need to cheat in order to eliminate two competitors. He's a bad person, obviously.
The only kid who doesn't think Guy is a horrible asshole is Chaitanya Chopra (newcomer Rohan Chand), a young man with no friend, other than his notebook (named "Todd"). Guy wants nothing to do with Chaitanya at first, but eventually decides to teach him how to get in trouble, with an accompanying montage of shenanigans set to a Beastie Boys song. (The best part is the novel use of a lobster involving a toilet). Their relationship is the backbone of Bad Words, in large part because much ado is made of the question "Why is Guy doing this?" but the script by Andrew Dodge mostly strings you along until an hour or so in. In the meantime, here, enjoy Jason Bateman being the jerk for a change.
Bad Words is a movie that's sometimes pretty good but never great. There are laughs to be had, but more often you'll chuckle, and the reliance on profanity and crude behavior doesn't quite sustain the film. I've heard criticism of movies like Bad Santa and Cheap Thrills for their reliance on shock value and bad taste over actual narrative, but Bad Words does even less with its central conceit. Once you know why Guy is hell-bent on making a mockery of the Golden Quill, it doesn't make his actions any more justified, or make the story any richer. And, despite that, the climax of the film - the showdown between the last two competitors (I'll let you guess based on the synopsis) - is arguably the best part of Bad Words.
The vulgarity up to that point is amusing at first, but wears out its welcome by the first sex scene, when Jenny is screaming "don't look at me" at Guy, a joke that ends up being reused later, to no real effect. Anything you see Guy teaching Chaitanya comes off as a pale retread of Bad Santa, which is shame because Chand and Bateman have good chemistry on-screen together. Most of the other parents (including former VH1 and The Daily Show regular Rachael Harris) are there to express their frustration with Guy, and for him to string together crass insults at. Again, it's amusing, up to a point, but to be honest I nearly lost interest leading up the end of the film.
If the novelty of Jason Bateman not being the "everyman" he usually plays is enough for you, Bad Words might be worth checking out. I will grant that as a director, Bateman keeps Bad Words visually interesting, even if the story struggles to maintain momentum. The "twist" doesn't amount to much, and the shock value of a belligerent adult in a pre-teen environment wears out quickly, but the movie never collapses. It chugs along, dutifully playing the same notes as Bad Santa and other films of its ilk, but not doing anything really new with the tune. I suppose for some, that's good enough. More people seem to enjoy it than I did, for what it's worth.
In all honesty, I had no expectations going in to Bad Words, because I only knew it existed after seeing a review on CNN while getting my oil changed, but the premise sounded interesting. I was a little bummed that it didn't live up to even the muted hype, but a telling (and worrying) giveaway for me was the presence of the "Darko Productions" logo in front of the movie. While it should have no bearing on Bateman as a director, there's not really a better indicator of "failed potential" than Richard Kelly (Southland Tales), and unfortunately it carried over to films being presented by his production company. And it is, for a little while - while never hilarious, you might find Bad Words to be a nice distraction as a Saturday afternoon rental, but not much more than that. If you're really looking for bad language, might I recommend Fuck instead? That'll cover your bases, and you'll be able to spell most of them to boot.