Guy Trilby: I’m not that good at a lot of stuff, especially thinking things through.
Without question, BAD WORDS, Jason Bateman’s directorial debut, is going to turn some people off from the very start. Bateman stars as Guy Trilby, a 40-year old man who lives alone and who just lost his mother a couple of months prior to our meeting him. We are introduced to Guy as he is about to essentially hijack a regional spelling bee by forcing his way into the child’s competition, citing a loophole as justification and threatening legal action if they don’t allow him to participate. This is to say that we are not meeting Guy on his best day and we are about to witness him at one of the lowest points in his life as he makes his way through the Golden Quill national spelling championship. Why is he so angry? Why does he have contempt for everyone he meets? Why is he doing any of this at all? These are the questions about Guy’s character that linger throughout BAD WORDS and your enjoyment of the film will depend on whether you care or not to discover the answers.
Bateman does not make it easy for you to care about Guy and this is both his debut’s strongest asset and weakest element. From Batemen’s voiceover narration, as written by first time screenwriter, Andrew Dodge, we know that something made him the way he is, so Bateman clearly wants us to care about Guy. That said, he challenges the audience’s ability to do so greatly by making Guy incredibly unlikable. Every word that comes out of his mouth is biting. He keeps everyone in his life at arm’s length and when they get too close, his sharp tongue is unleashed on them to push them back to a safe distance. The same effect is had on the audience though and, while the characters in the film have no choice but to continue revolving around their protagonist, we may not have the same patience to stay involved. Personally, I didn’t mind him. I felt compassion for Guy. He is clearly at a crossroads in his life and working some old issues out in front of a lot of people. That isn’t an easy place to be in. It doesn’t give him free license to be a total jerk to everyone, including his young competitors, but it is a lot easier to forgive him his faults when his attacks are as crafty and as witty as Bateman makes them with his sardonic brilliance.
Naturally, no one is on Guy’s side. The parents want him gone immediately; the administration, including subtle turns by Allison Janney and Philip Baker Hall, is trying to find any way to disqualify him; essentially, it is Guy against the spelling world! There is one person who sees past Guy’s prickly façade though, a young competitor named, Chaitanya Chopra (relative newcomer, Rohan Chand). Chaitanya and Guy form an unlikely and grossly inappropriate friendship, one that should have easily been enough fodder to justify throwing Guy out of the competition anyway. The young child’s beaming smile is powerful enough to at least begin cracking Guy’s tough exterior and their friendship provides some of the film’s most enjoyable moments. All the same, Chaitanya sees something in Guy that no one else can, including the audience, and as BAD WORDS veers away from being bad and closer toward the more conventional thinking that was hiding beneath the surface the whole time, it loses some of the edge it tries so hard to maintain. In the end, Bateman’s first directorial effort proves that he can spell with the best of them but it may just depend on the words that he’s given.