If you were a teen in the ’80s, you likely spent time sitting on your acid-washed tuchis watching Jason Bateman and Michael J. Fox on TV. (C’mon—there were only three networks at the time.) Fox had a breakout hit with Family Ties, leading to a starring role in the top-grossing film of ’85, Back to the Future, and the less-acclaimed Teen Wolf, which nevertheless became the 26th highest earner that same year. Meanwhile, Bateman spent the first two seasons of the Ricky Schroder vehicle Silver Spoons playing a bad boy, until he was dropped from the program, presumably because Ricky had picked up enough ill manners from Bateman’s memorable wiseass. He went on to star in the sequel to one of Fox’s big-screen hits—alas, not Back to the Future Part II, but Teen Wolf Too, which, as the 93rd highest moneymaker of ’87, really was a howler.
By the time Arrested Development reached the airwaves 16 years later, Bateman finally seemed to have the hit that he deserved. The comedy series was a critical darling—so, naturally, it was eventually cancelled. Nevertheless, Bateman was on audiences’ radars, and, after memorable turns in a couple of not-so-memorable big screen comedies (2011’s Horrible Bosses and The Change-Up), he was poised to strike pay dirt last year when Netflix successfully resurrected Arrested Development. And he co-starred with Melissa McCarthy in Identity Thief, which received dismal reviews but became a box-office hit.
What most of Bateman’s movie roles have lacked is that smarmy charm he had on Silver Spoons. Even in a film titled Horrible Bosses, he was saddled with playing the Really Nice Guy. So, I’d like to imagine that as he earned the right to be his own boss, and decided to direct his own film, he recognized it was time to return to his roots, casting himself as a brilliant schmuck in Bad Words, an acidic comedy that proves he’s just as talented behind the camera.
Bateman plays Guy Trilby, a 40-year-old loner who edits fine print for a living. Trilby stumbles across some especially fine print that allows him, a man who never graduated from the eighth grade, to become an “idiot hijacker” of children’s spelling bees, for purposes that will remain a mystery for most of the film’s running time.
When we first see Trilby, it’s at the regional spelling bee in Columbus, Ohio. We soon realize that this isn’t the first time he’s exploited the loophole he’s discovered, and it certainly won’t be the last—even if every parent and contest administrator wants him dead. And why not, when he verbally and mentally abuses everyone in his path on his road to the Golden Quill National Spelling Bee, an institution for more than a century, one that he gleefully plans on metaphorically burning to the ground. But first, he needs to take Columbus, and as he smugly stands onstage, towering over the “pre-masturbators” he’s competing against, he addresses all the mothers who have gathered to cheer on their sweet little poindexters.
“Hey, Moms? Break out the rubber pillowcases; the little pricks are going to be counting tears tonight instead of sheep.”
Is it any surprise that Trilby, winning trophy in hand, goes running from the auditorium pursued by an angry mob resembling the natives chasing Indiana Jones at the outset of Raiders of the Lost Ark? This bloodthirsty bunch fears broken dreams and innocence lost, and Trilby’s just taken the apple from paradise.
Driving his getaway car is Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn of We’re the Millers), a reporter who senses something within Trilby. Sure, it might simply be bile, but he requires a media sponsor for his scheme to work, and she needs a story. Plus, opposites attract—or, at least, they like to screw while screaming, “Don’t f—ing look at me!”
Credit should be given to Andrew Dodge; Bad Words is his first produced screenplay, and he isn’t joking around with that title. However, there are heartfelt moments within this wonderfully debauched comedy. Trilby forges an unlikely bond with a competitor, an awkward 10-year-old named Chaitanya Chopra (Homeland’s Rohan Chand). Though our antihero dubs him “Slumdog,” Chopra remains unfazed, even as Trilby introduces his young friend to smoking, shoplifting, drinking and streetwalkers.
As the two bond over a shared love of language (and boobs), Chopra tells Trilby that his favorite word is “subjugate.” Hmm. Turns out, Trilby might not be the only one with a hidden agenda.
What’s this all building to? I won’t say, but I will direct you to the tagline on the film’s poster: “The end justifies the mean.” And how. For Bateman, it’s been a long time coming.
Starring Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Rohan Chand, Rachael Harris, Philip Baker Hall and Allison Janney. Screenplay by Andrew Dodge. Directed by Jason Bateman. At Boston Common, Fenway, Kendall Square and in the suburbs.