Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman)—the protagonist of Bad Words, in the loosest possible sense that one could employ the word “protagonist”—appears to be a fairly wretched excuse for a human being. Sure, he’s taking advantage of an unfortunate loophole in the rules for a fictionalized National Spelling Bee—he has not yet completed 8th grade, just like the rules say—in order to compete as a 40-year-old against a bunch of middle-schoolers, but that’s the least of his sins. He treats every other person around him like garbage, including web-based journalist Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), who’s sponsoring him in exchange for an exclusive story about his perplexing quest that he steadfastly refuses to provide. He hurls the saltiest possible language around every room he occupies. He engages in psychological warfare with fellow contestants that borders on child abuse.
I did mention that he is the protagonist of our story, right?
Transgressive comedy is a rich and wonderful tradition, and plenty of them in recent years have centered around characters who at least initially come off as fairly unpleasant, like Billy Bob Thornton’s Bad Santa and Johnny Knoxville’s Bad Grandpa. But there’s a delicate balance to be struck between reveling in these characters’ most outrageous behavior and providing some reason not to consider them more villain than hero. Bateman—also serving as director of his first feature, working from a script by first-time screenwriter Andrew Dodge—delivers plenty of the cringe-worthy punch lines, but by the time he gets around to explaining why Guy is such a gigantic tool, he’s made it too hard to salvage anything sympathetic.
Part of the strategy, it seems, is simply to make everyone around Guy look like just as much of a head case as he is. Jenny turns into a demanding, shades-of-Blue Velvet “Don’t look at me!” freak when having sex; the spelling bee’s director (Allison Janney) responds to the complaints from outraged parents by trying to stack the deck against Guy to make sure he’s eliminated (in a funny montage of Guy getting the most ridiculously complex words in the English language). And there are plenty of other secrets left to trickle out about other characters so that perhaps Guy’s toxic view of the world can come off as justified.
And the other main part of the strategy—one that Bad Santa and Bad Grandpa already explored so well—is giving the misanthropic main character a kid to absorb his worst behavior with smiling good humor. In Bad Words, that kid is Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), a 10-year-old fellow contestant and lonely prodigy. Initially, he’s just another pathetic potential distraction for Guy; then, Guy becomes almost a surrogate father figure, doing cool-dad stuff like taking Chaitanya to a hooker so he can get his first look at boobs. It’s the closest Bad Words comes to having Guy not come off like a complete waste of humanity, and generates a few lively moments thanks to the effervescent innocence Chand manages to convey.
The real problem with Bad Words, though, is that once Bateman and Hodge trickle out the back story that explains Guy’s single-minded assault on the spelling bee and everyone associated with it, he’s become almost too appalling a case study to be redeemed. They count on the set pieces focused around Guy’s inexcusable nastiness—like whispering to one of his fellow contestants that his parents are about to get a divorce—to be funny enough to get us over their cruelty, and that’s not always the case. What we eventually learn about Guy may justify his insistence on participating in a showcase for adolescents, but it doesn’t explain away his general level of monstrosity.
Of course, this is a comedy, and everyone’s comedy mileage may vary. Maybe it is funny enough in bursts to allow some viewers to overlook Guy’s mean streak. But there comes a point where the sour taste left by so much rancid behavior just can’t be sweetened enough by some hearty chuckles and an eventual tour through Guy’s sob-story motivation. It’s not that every story needs to have a happy ending, but it helps if the guy we’re following through a comedy isn’t someone who primarily inspires the desire for him to get a well-deserved smack in the face.
Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Rohan Chand