Just when you think that the film industry is running out of ideas, it produces a movie about a 40-year-old man competing in a national spelling bee. On the surface, the movie might come across as another run-of-the-mill Hollywood comedy with a few funny moments and a predictable ending. Surprisingly, “Bad Words” presents an alternative view of a comedy rooted in elements of a darker tone.
The movie introduces what, on paper, should be an unlikable character: Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) comes across as a racist, bullies children, drinks profusely, and screams profanities whenever possible. But as the story delves further into the plot and the character, the audience discovers a deeply hurt and vengeful man.
Trilby is able to enroll in the Golden Quill National Spelling Bee at the age of 40, a feat that outrages parents and children alike. The event is broadcast on national television, mortifying the Golden Quill organization, which is Trilby’s intention. As the spelling bee progresses, Trilby finds himself forming a camaraderie with one of his fellow competitors, 10-year-old Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand). With the support of a reporter for the event, Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), Trilby seeks to destroy the competition and embarrass the chief of the spelling bee, Dr. Bowman (Philip Baker Hall).
As the story unfolds, the audience becomes aware of Trilby’s true motivation. He is not destructive or crazy, but a man seeking revenge for his father’s abandoning him as a baby.
Actor Jason Bateman both stars and makes his directorial debut in this independent comedy. Bateman was conscious of ensuring that Trilby had a depth that the audience could grasp.
“I think it was very important to start the film with exposing the audience to his inside before we meet his outside. I think when we start [a movie], the audience is most viable and most open to any way you want to take them,” Bateman said at a conference call last week.
“He [Trilby] is a guy that is going through something cathartic in this film. He’s deeply hurt and wounded and there is nothing funny to him about what is going on,” Bateman said. “If he knew how to handle himself, we would have a drama.”
In terms of getting into the spirit of the character, Bateman admits it was easier than he anticipated, despite his tendency to play more likable protagonists. “Right before we’d start shooting, I’d start acting a little cockier, rolling my eyes a little more,” he said.
“I know how to be a jerk,” Bateman added. “We all have this guy in us, and you know you hope that you can keep that person under wraps and you’re not provoked to be like that. And of course the racism and such is not a part of who I am. I understand a level of frustration and petulance that brings about your worst side, and that’s the part I had to get into right before we did each shot. ... The goal is to be as convincing as possible at being a bad guy.”
Directing has been a longtime dream for Bateman, who said he hopes to do this again in the future.
“I was certainly excited about the opportunity to do something I’ve been kind of asking to do—not overtly, but it’s certainly been the plan. I’ve always wanted to do this, and then it happened, and then there was this moment of ‘Oh no, what have I done.’”
As a director, he was impressed by those he was able to work with behind the camera.
“It takes the work of a lot of really skilled people who don’t really get a lot of attention or accolades and are extremely underpaid for the amount of work that they do and skills that they have,” he said. “I always thought it would be a privilege to oversee those people, streamline their process, inspire them ... I’ve always been a team sports guy.”
He admits that experience was critical for his directorial debut. “I wanted to wait until I could learn to speak their language.”