TV’s “Arrested Development” star Jason Bateman proved several things when he directed and starred in the new and amusing feature film “Bad Words.”
One is that insult comedy can still amuse. In “Bad Words,” Bateman’s character depends on his ability to creatively—and often harshly—insult his enemies as much as anyone has since Don Rickles was in his prime, you hockey puck.
Bateman is playing Guy Trilby (a name choice which baffles). Trilby is a forty-year-old man and a professional proof-reader of product service agreements—dull stuff. Having investigated the rules for the twenty-year-old Golden Quill spelling bee contest, he has entered it. We see him win his regional competition to qualify for the national championship.
Isn’t Trilby too old for a spelling bee? Well, Dr. Bowman (founder of the competition) has unfortunately described his eligibility pool as being those who have not completed the eighth grade by a certain date. Trilby, whose childhood seems to have been disastrous, has never completed the eighth grade.
Each bee participant must be sponsored by a publishing organization. Trilby’s sponsor is a web site represented by a reporter traveling with him. Veteran Kathryn Hahn plays Jenny, who seeks sexual release with Trilby but only while ordering him not to look at her face.
Naturally the executives of the bee are upset by Trilby’s entry, especially as parents are putting pressure on them and as public television is broadcasting the final bee—if PBS didn’t do it, who would, eh? Former champion and long-time director (Allison Janney) promises to quit if she can’t get Trilby to lose during the contest.
She provides the bee’s word reader, a man whose pronunciation she regularly derides, with word lists rigged so that Trilby constantly gets the toughest, or at least the longest, words to spell. But he rips right through them. “Antidisestablishmentarianism ”? No prob.
She arranges for Trilby to be forced to stay in a supply closet in the Bee hotel. And, then, other competitors are not above gamesmanship, sometimes of a quite complicated variety. But Trilby can play this game, too. Our anti-hero suggests to one kid, for example, that his mother spent the previous night with Trilby, and uses a pair of panties as a prop.
The jokes can be rude. Trilby tells a competitor who asks that his winning word at regionals was “autofelatio.” Trilby’s insult of a bee mother played by Rachel Harris is a masterpiece of bad taste. His mind game with a female competitor was just tasteless. Edgy comedy has to take risks. Not all risks play off.
A ten-year-old boy competitor lives just down the motel hall from Trilby and, despite the adult’s original rejections, the boy keeps trying to make friends. Eventually the man feels sorry for the kid, whose parents seem to want too much of him and to spend too little time with him. Trilby takes young Chopra out for an evening of pranks.
They drop a live lobster into the toilet in a men’s room stall and wait to see what will happen when an older man ducks in there for relief. In a cocktail lounge, he slips the kid (sitting on the floor underneath a bar overhang) shots. And he pays an overweight hooker $10 to show the kid her breasts, thus disabusing the boy of a mistake he’s made about the female anatomy—he has said that when he marries he is going to select a made who has nipples.
“Bad Words” doesn’t actually make fun of the “Rocky” plot, but it does make effective use of it. So there will be late complications. The reporter will find out why Trilby is insistent on making the bee ridiculous. Something unexpected will happen to complicate Trilby’s task. And then he may get a chance for the revenge he seeks. He may even get a chance to save his only friendship.
The garage blues soundtrack helps the movie immensely. On the other hand, the story has trouble being visual. But generally speaking “Bad Words” was a fairly amusing little project which proves that the kind of comedy Bateman is known for still has its effect.