Bad Words

Forget all the usual feel-good shit they're shoveling at the multiplex. Bad Words, starring Jason Bateman in a tour de force of comic wickedness, takes sinful pleasure in rubbing our noses in the toxic joys of revenge. Let me explain. Bateman, who also makes a killer feature-directing debut, plays Guy Trilby, a 40-year-old proofreader, who decides to enter a kids' spelling bee. Guy plays hard. Gloves off.

Sun Tzu's The Art of War has nothing on Guy for rules of intimidation. Age, race, creed and crying like a baby won't deter him from crushing the preteens who take him on. "Your chair called me for help," he tells a fat kid, and a girl is teased about her period. Compared to Guy, Billy Bob Thornton's Bad Santa is Little Miss Sunshine.

Kids and parents try to force Guy off the stage with everything from cold stares to death threats. No go. Guy is in on a loophole. Despite his photographic memory, he never got past the eighth grade in school, which makes him eligible, according to the rule book.

As the spelling bees move from regionals to nationals, Guy starts getting media attention from reporter Jenny Widgeon (the priceless Kathryn Hahn), who feels disgusted when they have sex but tries to learn the reason for Guy's psychoses. It comes, but not too soon, thanks to a take-no-prisoners script from gifted newcomer Andrew Dodge.

Just before the televised verbal shootout at the Golden Quill, administered by Dr. Deagan, a deliciously officious Allison Janney, Guy lets his guard down a bit with 10-year-old Chaitanya Chopra (the excellent Rohan Chand), an Indian rival he calls Slumdog. The boy's relationship with his pushy father touches a chord in Guy. He and Chaitanya have a night on the town that pushes the limits of taste (watch for the lobster). Who'd want it any other way?

Authority figures, such as the Golden Quill's founding patriarch, played by the great Philip Baker Hall, get the hardest pounding. Hall's performance is a marvel. As a first-time director, Bateman shows a wondrous affinity with actors. None more than Hall, who, at 82, can still teach a master class. Whether you remember him best as Nixon in Robert Altman's Secret Honor or in commanding roles in Paul Thomas Anderson's Hard Eight, Boogie Nights and Magnolia, or even as Mr. Bookman, the library cop in a classic episode of Seinfeld ("Lemme tell you something, funny boy!"), Hall is the real deal in actors. I salute Bateman for giving him another juicy part.

OK, Bad Words drifts toward sentiment near the end. But it never gets sloppy about it. In this profanely funny comedy of bad manners and hurts that won't heal, Bateman shows the same skill as a filmmaker that he does as an actor. And that's something to see. So do it.

From The Archives Issue 1205: March 27, 2014