As with most of the Bad Santa imitators which have popped up in recent years Bad Words is, at best, a mixed bag. Far better than the unfortunate (and best forgotten) Bad Teacher, this film directed by and starring Jason Bateman about a middle-aged man-child entering a national 8th grade spelling competition to deal with his own personal issues certainly provides its share of laughs along the way.
When we first meet Guy Trilby (Bateman) he’s already worming his way into a qualifying round of a local spelling bee with the help of a blogger (Kathryn Hahn) and a loophole in the guidelines which allows anyone who has not yet graduated from the eighth grade entry into the bee.
To call Trilby a self-serving prick isn’t really doing justice to the man determined to make a mockery of the competition on national television much to the dismay of countless parents and those in charge of the spelling bee (Philip Baker Hall, Allison Janney). By the time the film gets around to revealing Trilby’s reasons (which are as self-serving as every other piece of his character) it doesn’t really matter as nothing could possibly justify the actions we witness.
The film succeeds, at times, with the various mean-spirited stunts Trilby plays to improve his chances at winning the spelling bee (including using a ketchup packet to convince a young girl she’s begun menstruating on stage). Not all of these childish tricks work, and none of them make the character likable in the least, but the film does garner its share of laugh letting Bateman loose to be the biggest asshole he can be. The real surprise is when we discover just how prepared our prickish leading man is for the competition as one of the best spellers on-stage (which makes some of the various stunts he pulls unnecessary and even more awful in retrospect).
Much of the movie centers around Tribly’s unexpected friendship with another one of the contestants played by Rohan Chand which leads to various misadventures, an eventual falling out (creating an entirely new source of insanity), and eventual reconciliation. As with Bad Santa the friendship will change our bastard of a main character in small ways but not drastically effect the kind of man he’s grown-up to be.
You could certainly do better than Bad Words, but if all you are looking for is a throwaway comedy with some laughs around an unlikable main character you could also do far worse. I can’t quite bring myself to recommend anyone shelling out full-price for what is an uneven (and hardly original) film, but if you can find a cheap matinee, or wait a few months for home video, there is some fun to be had (and some profanity-filled insanity to enjoy).