The Holy Grails of such films for me are Bad Santa and Bridesmaids. And if I were plotting a trilogy, Jason Bateman’s first directorial effort Bad Words would be right there alongside them.
I freaking loved this movie.
Let me add that I am not a Jason Bateman fan. He reminds me of boys that weren’t very nice to me in junior high – all preppy swagger and snark. However, this film has made me turn 180 degrees on that assessment. He’s plenty snide in this flick, but I’m guessing that he too was one of the picked on, given the surety and sensitivity and sharpness with which he approaches this material.
The concept (one that can only make sense in the logic bubble that is Hollywood film-making) is that a 40-year-old proofreader (Bateman again) can enter the “Golden Quill” spelling bee competition via one loophole: anyone who has not completed school past the 8th grade is eligible. (It’s never explained how Bateman has a seemingly successful career yet never passed beyond middle school, but whatever.)
Bateman’s character Guy Trilby has some hidden agenda for why he is so hellbent to not only enter the bee at local and regional levels but to win at the national level. We learn bits and pieces through the course of the film as Trilby is trailed by a web journalist (and sometime paramour) – played brilliantly by nebbishy Kathryn Hahn (a near doppelganger for Saturday Night Live alum Ana Gasteyer) – who unearths aspects of his past as the film proceeds.
Bateman has cast his film to perfection, including the always wonderful Allison Janney as the spelling bee’s anal-retentive national director, Rachael Harris as a belligerent bee-parent, and Philip Baker Hall as a the Golden Quill’s paterfamilias.
The heart and soul of the film, though, comes in the form of newcomer Rohan Chand as Trilby’s 10-year-old sidekick/rival. Yes, the scenes of the 40-year-old and 10-year-old painting the town red are comically shocking but also wildly endearing. Say what you will about Bateman, but he telegraphs arrested development beautifully (no pun intended given that he starred on a TV show with the same name), with his boyish charm, elfin features, and boys-will-be-boys attitude. As a result, the friendship that blossoms between these two puckish naturals is a whimsical delight (rivaling what Billy Bob Thornton accomplished in the aforementioned Bad Santa).
I suppose, given the fact that I subjected myself to foolish pageantry like spelling bees and speech tournaments in my youth, I had a predilection to identify more with this film. But Batemen nailed the hothouse insanity of pitting 10-year-olds against 10-year-olds over something as innocuous as spelling words. Indeed, Bateman’s Trilby is cutthroat in his desire to take down any kid in his path (there were a few gags that made me squirm unnecessarily). However, trust me, kids do that to kids … what makes it ironic (and d*mn funny) is that we are now seeing a 40-year-old man engage in such juvenile shenanigans.
With this film, Bateman announces himself as a directorial presence. He displays a nuance that many directors never achieve – he walks a fine line between smart-aleck and empathy. And the results are utterly charming and blisteringly caustic. I will be first in the queue for his next effort.
Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Please check out this coverage from BroadwayWorld of upcoming book launch events. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan; by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan; and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Bookbound and Memory Lane both also have copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.