Bad Words is the platonic ideal of a cinematic comedy. Just under 90 minutes in length, and replete with actors who have an intuitive grasp of comic timing, the film zips nicely along, delivers a solid laugh line every few minutes, and doesn’t wear out its welcome.
Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman, who also directs) is every helicopter parent’s worst nightmare. Not only is he a walking, talking example of what happens when you fail to monitor your precious baby’s every move—he’s a middle school drop out; he’s single in his mid-40s; he’s a foulmouthed schlub—he’s also stepping onto their turf by entering the Golden Quill spelling bee.
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Trilby’s found a loophole. The rules don’t set an age limit; they simply stipulate that a contestant must not have progressed beyond the eighth grade. And contestants need sponsorship from a national media outlet, handily provided by Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn) and "The Click and Scroll," a news website. She’s there to chronicle Trilby’s journey, and try to figure out why a middle-aged man wants to win a competition designed for children.
Despite being an eighth-grade dropout, Trilby’s a sort of spelling savant. He doesn’t need to know roots or parts of speech or definitions. He hears a word and flawlessly spits out its letters. He’s like the Terminator, but one targeting ’tween dreams: He absolutely will not stop, ever, until their hopes are crushed.
Trilby’s attempt to crush, to kill, and to destroy the competition hits a snag when he befriends an awkward little boy named Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand). A stereotypical spelling bee contestant, Chopra spends all his time studying in the hopes of taking home the trophy and the $50,000 check. In the spirit of Bad Santa, Trilby teaches Chopra to lighten up a little bit. But the kid has a trick or two up his sleeve that even an inveterate sleaze ball like Guy can’t see coming.
Unsurprisingly, most of the laughs come from Trilby’s interactions with his underage competitors and their overbearing parents. The lengths to which he will go to psych-out his opponents—and possibly scar them for life—verge near the cringe-worthy without fully crossing over. It’s not quite all in good fun, but it’s all pretty funny.
Bateman has cornered the market on ornery average dudes with rapier wits. His Trilby comes off like a demented version of Michael Bluth, down to his generous use of "buddy" and "pal" to describe the young folks around him.
Hahn, meanwhile, shines as the poor journalist tasked with capturing Trilby’s story. She has quietly evolved into one of the best female comedians working today. Small parts in Step Brothers, Our Idiot Brother, and a host of other supporting roles have shown that she can improve virtually any comedy with even limited screen time. It would be nice to see her get some more work.