SXSW capsule review: ‘Bad Words’
There are few rites of passage more American than the spelling bee, be it in your local middle school in front of your peers or nationally televised in front of millions. All those kids, spelling words that would make most parents rush for the dictionary (or Google, since it’s no longer 1994) — it’s hypnotic, weird and thrilling all at once.
It makes a great subject for a foul mouthed, loose-limbed, often hilariously mean comedy. In “Bad Words” (get it?), 40-year old Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman, making his feature directorial debut) finds a loophole in the rules for the National Quill Spelling Bee which allows him to enter as an adult. “Bad Words” screened 10 p.m. Friday as part of the South By Southwest Film Festival.
Make no mistake about it. As much as “Bad Words” thrives on the precision chatter of “Arrested Development,” Bateman’s character is not a nice guy. He is a terrible human being, crass and cruel. To wit: Biggish kid in the bee: “Why are you up here?”
Trilby: “Your chair called me for help.”
Sponsored by a website a reporter for which (Kathryn Hahn) Trilby has guaranteed a story, Trilby mows down the competition until he reaches the final rounds, where he faces the wrath of the bee’s chair (Alison Janney, terrific per usual) and the bee’s founder (a somewhat shaky Philip Baker Hall)
Along the way he…well, befriends isn’t quite the right word…he puts up with a young Indian-American contestant named Chaitanya Chopra ( the beyond adorable Rohan Chand). The kid’s ethnicity is a bit of an in-joke that ends up just on the line; as Pakistani-born comedian Kumail Nanjiani put it “The Spelling Bee is the Indian people’s NBA.”
Chopra, as friendless as Trilby, just won’t take no for an answer, hanging around Trilby no matter how much abuse is slung his way. And Trilby can sling it: Bateman’s finesse with all this yammering, as complicated as it is cruel, a blast to hear.
And the extended scene where Trilby takes Chopra out for a night of minor vice (sips of beers, topless ladies) is full of pep and verve, while the actual spelling bee scenes owe as much to Christopher Guest as Judd Apatow.
The movie can’t quite avoid telegraphing its big reveal, but the plot isn’t really the point here — laughs that are certainly discounted if not outright cheap are. And “Bad Words” delivers those in s-p-a-d-e-s.