‘Adult’ is a four-letter word
A half-hearted, foul-mouthed coming-of-middle-age comedy
In a way, the title says it all: Bad Words is an R-rated comedy with a lot of “bad words” in it. The somewhat foul-mouthed pronouncements of its protagonist (a strangely impertinent loner and quasi-adult played by Jason Bateman) are made even more provocative by a central premise that has him competing in spelling bees that are otherwise geared to grade-school children.
But the title and the R-rating are also a little bit misleading. The “inappropriate” language does loom large, and there are a couple of brash moments of sex involving Bateman’s Guy Trilby and an Internet “reporter” (Kathryn Hahn), but all of that stands in rather stark contrast to an overall narrative largely devoted to PG-level plotting.
Initially, Guy seems a half-crazed prankster who finagles his way into the top-flight spelling bees on a technicality (he never finished the eighth grade). Much to the consternation of the competition’s overseers, he also shows exceptional spelling skills alongside his genius for crude insults. But the later portions of this somewhat scattered comedy (directed by Bateman from a script by Andrew Dodge) seem mostly aimed at domesticating its apparently sociopathic protagonist.
The inexplicably erratic relationship of Guy and Jenny (Hahn) gets decreasing amounts of attention once he starts taking an interest in the welfare of little Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), a skillful and charmingly wily young competitor who seems better attuned to Guy’s peculiarities than any of the adults in the story. And looming over all of it is Guy’s obsession with impressing and/or embarrassing the spelling bee’s national chairman, the ogre-like Dr. Bowman (a sad-looking Philip Baker Hall).
The plot concocted by Dodge and Bateman is littered with half-hidden agendas, and unfortunately the ensuing revelations don’t add up to much. Parent-child relationships emerge as an increasingly central concern in all this, but only the most facetious plot thread—the revenge-of-the-nerds bond between Guy and Chaitanya—reaches anything approaching a satisfying resolution (and even then, satisfying only in comedic terms, and never mind the plausibility).
All told, Bad Words promises more than it can deliver. It puts a lot of stuff in semi-satirical play: domineering parents, overachieving kids, cultural elites, the miseducation of gifted children, high-tech snobbery, etc. But its various jibes seem half-hearted, especially alongside the volatile and fraught contradictions of Guy/Bateman. He can be as vicious and mean as any of the targets of his wrath, regardless of whether they are overbearing authority figures or overeager spelling-bee champions.
His evolution into a surrogate father/big brother for Chaitanya is the most appealing thing about him, but even that raises more questions than the film can comfortably face. Factor in the apparent misogyny of the character and the film, and Guy’s leap forward looks more like a retreat into prolonged, and perhaps permanent, adolescence.