Throw every ounce of compassion you have out the window, put yourself on Guy Trilby’s (Jason Bateman) level, and you’ll be ready to enjoy watching him ruin children’s lives in Bad Words.
The film follows 40-year-old Guy Trilby, who one day decides that it’s time to stick it to the national spelling bee. He leaves his job as a product warranty proofreader and puts the fact that he never passed the eighth grade to use by vying for the title at The Golden Quill, an event for pre-teens. Not only does Guy threaten to take the title from a hardworking, overachieving student, but he also opts to do so in a toxic manner, demolishing his opponents by nailing his words in competition and also insulting, berating or embarrassing them every chance he gets.
Guy Trilby is a jerk and you’re a jerk if you find his antics amusing. But fortunately, Bad Words is only a movie and after 88 minutes, you can leave Guy and his foul mouth behind knowing that he didn’t truly scar at least a dozen kids for life. When we first meet Guy, he’s wrecking 10 and 11-year-olds’ dreams for no apparent reason. He makes it abundantly clear that he does have a reason, but he isn’t willing to share it just yet and without knowing his motivation, it’s impossible to look at him any other way than as a total Grinch. However, even when his big secret is finally revealed, it’s not particularly compelling and comes nowhere near justifying his behavior, bringing us back to Bad Words functioning as a source of solid jokes that make you laugh, but then also make you feel guilty about laughing at them.
Guy isn’t just whip smart at the mic when challenged to spell out lengthy, obscure words. Try having a debate with him or even just a casual, everyday conversation. No matter what the topic, he will shut you down and make you ashamed of your own opinion. Guy’s quick wit and sarcasm could result in an endless stream of memorable quotes and absolutely outrageous laugh-out-loud-worthy moments, but that depends on your taste in humor. If you’re unable to leave reality behind and accept the fact that the film’s protagonist thinks it’s okay to pass a 10-year-old shots under the bar, Bad Words will likely be too mean-spirited for you.
Guy isn’t just an immature adult with a potty mouth. He’s a mean person. Sure, he’s got a troubled past, but that still does not give him license to essentially ruin other peoples’ lives. Thanks to his behavior, Dr. Bernice Deagan’s (Allison Janney) job is on the line, there’s one female spelling bee competitor who’ll end up with a severe fear of maturing, and yet another who’ll never talk to his parents again. It’s all funny, but you also can’t help but to assess the reality of the situation and that winds up sucking a good deal of fun out of a number of the jokes. Had Bateman set his story in a hyper real world and put the narrative to a snappier beat, perhaps it would have been easier to allow the film to push the boundaries of reality. However, instead, Bateman runs with a serious tone paired with a far more deliberate pace, both of which often clash with the humor.
When you’re presenting a scenario like this as though it’s the real deal, it also makes it far harder to cover up plot holes, and Bad Words has many. Kathryn Hahn steps in as Jenny, a reporter who’s basically funding Guy’s venture in exchange for a great story. She’s a chief supporting character with an agenda that’s discussed time and time again, but is never wrapped up. Janney’s character also makes a premature exit and Rohan Chand’s Chaitainya Chopra really could have used just one more scene to resolve a certain issue with his father.
Bad Words is also without much perspective. There is no world beyond The Golden Quill. A major issue here is that Guy is demolishing the event’s prestige, but if we have no access to the outside world, it’s impossible to care that he’s embarrassing those that have dedicated their lives to the spelling bee. Plus, you just can’t help but to consider the fact that if some 40-year-old guy really did infiltrate a children’s spelling bee, it’d be big news, flooding everyone’s Twitter feed and appearing all over TV.
Bad Words is highly entertaining, but it’s often hard to enjoy because the tone makes it so difficult to separate reality from fiction. There’s still loads of fun to be had; you just have to make an effort to push your morals aside to access it.