Bad Words (Focus Features, R)

badwords 75The film puts Jason Bateman in a situation where he can verbally pick off both small children and their helicoptering parents.


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It’s an unpopular opinion for a film critic hoping for any kind of respect, but I kind of like the Adam Sandler vehicle Billy Madison. Very nearly everything about it is poorly done, but it’s funny, and that’s all it really needs to be. That’s pretty much how Jason Bateman’s directorial debut, Bad Words, is: The plot, the character development, the ending, etc., all basically suck, but the movie’s funny, so I’m willing to get over that.

The premise, such as it is, is that Guy Trilby (Bateman), a misanthropic fortysomething, finds a loophole to get into the national spelling bee tournament: He finds a sponsor in newspaper reporter Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn, who is funny, but always seems to turn up in the worst movies) and has never passed the eighth grade, apparently, so the competition pits him against people a quarter his age. The can’t-have-passed-eighth-grade thing is a convenient loophole in the official rules, since (spoiler alert, though you can see the thing I’m spoiling from a mile away) his estranged father (Philip Baker Hall) runs the national bee. And it’s awfully improbably for Trilby not to have passed eighth grade, given that he seems to be some kind of certifiable genius underneath all of the hate. But all of this doesn’t really matter, because it’s just a lame reason to put Trilby in a situation where he can verbally pick off both small children and their helicoptering parents, and that’s funny, especially when the barbs are written as well as they are here in Andrew Dodge’s screenplay.

Along the way Trilby befriends and corrupts a young Indian competitor of his, Chaitanya (Rohan Chand, a find), much like how Billy Bob Thornton did with the fat kid in Bad Santa. Again, you can see it from a mile away, but this budding pseudo-friendship (it might be worth mentioning that Trilby isn’t always a particularly willing participant in the relationship) is one of the major sources of credibility strain in the film. But it’s funny!

Oh, I can’t keep apologizing for this thing. If you see it and hate it, I won’t argue. If you say it’s racist or sexist or a number of other accusations, I won’t argue. If you say that perhaps Bateman isn’t the best suited for the lead role in this given his tendency to whisper punchlines, which makes a lot of them get lost in crowd noise, I won’t argue. But if you say it’s the funniest Hollywood comedy since This Is the End, I won’t argue about that, either. | Pete Timmermann

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