“Bad Words” is a marketing team’s nightmare.
Jason Bateman stars in his directorial debut as a 40-year-old man with a quick temper and a vile tongue who enters a children’s spelling bee contest. A dark comedy in which racial slurs are flung left and right at small children is already a hard sell, but compound that with a protagonist who is immediately unlikeable and shallow, and you have a monstrous task trying to target any audience.
Nonetheless, “Bad Words” aims for something higher. “It’s a challenge — one reason I was drawn to it was because you had this character that was so unlikeable and it had to be shot and executed in the right way,” said Bateman in an interview with The Daily Californian. “I wanted to do something different than the normal, safe studio comedy.”
Guy Trilby, Bateman’s character, is a man with no filter. Through a loophole in a spelling bee’s contest rules — contestants could not have passed beyond the eighth grade, and Trilby never finished school — Trilby enters the National Quill Spelling Bee to make a point. That point becomes one of the central conflicts in the story, but none of this is controversial. What’s problematic is the character himself.
Bateman calls Trilby “a guy who just doesn’t know any better,” and this comes out in full force when Trilby interacts with the other contestants in the spelling bee, most of them under 12 years of age. He calls one fat and tells another that he slept with his mother, but all of this pales in comparison to his relationship with Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), an Indian American kid who is extremely perky and frighteningly good at spelling.
Granted, Trilby’s relationship with Chopra is mostly lighthearted and friendly, but on very few occasions does Trilby actually address his fellow competitor by his name. For the most part, he refers to Chopra as “slumdog,” “curry,” “chai tea” and a host of other racially insensitive nicknames. It’s easy to see where Bateman was trying to go with this type of setup — by starting out at such an outrageously offensive level, Bateman would be able to develop the character and make audiences find a little bit of humanity and empathy even in this awful human.
The end goal of the story is more elevated than what the film presents itself as, but unfortunately, it isn’t able to pull it off. Trilby’s backstory is not developed enough to justify his behavior, and without a proper understanding of his history, it’s hard to relate to his bitter and cynical attitude toward the world. As such, the racial slurs feel gratuitous and unnecessary. It could have been worse — according to Bateman, earlier drafts of the script had the “n word,” but the team ended up taking it out.
“The other moments felt okay because, oftentimes, they were moments of teasing,” explained Bateman. “By the end, he gets a little smarter. I like to see films where we have characters with progression.”
Bateman assured us that each child actor had a parent, social worker and teacher on set. “Every kid wanted to be there. They all knew what we were going to do and trying to do,” Bateman said. “Hopefully, the sum total of the parts presents something more sophisticated.”
Bateman’s efforts are laudable. After a long career as an actor (“Arrested Development,” “Horrible Bosses”), his first foray as a director is a departure from the conventional studio comedy. Bateman cites Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coen brothers as his directorial inspirations.
“They often do films that depict a section of society that is less polished,” said Bateman. “It’s a breeding ground for interesting stories and characters. This film was set up to ask me to do everything they do.” Unfortunately, a very abrupt conflict resolution, a lack of believable character development and a whole lot of bad words prevent this film from being what it wishes to be.