Like a spelling bee itself, Bad Words is prone to moments of brilliance with some real cock-ups in between.As Jason Bateman's directorial debut and Andrew Dodge's first screenplay, it's to be expected that there are a few shaky points. Our disaffected hero, Guy Trilby (Bateman), is equal parts Grinch and Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa. Unlike the aforementioned characters, however, we never quite find anything that redeeming about him.
Bad Words opens on a process that Guy has seemed to endure rather regularly since his beginnings on the spelling bee circuit--total persecution, hatred and utter denial that he could possibly be a qualified candidate. Accompanied by a reporter named Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn) from the "national news publication" Click and Scroll, Guy has only her for support and protection throughout every bee (though he would never admit as much to anyone, least of all to Jenny).
Admitting to his sad little life as a forty-year-old proofreader for product manuals (pause for contemplation of the tedium), Guy finds a loophole in the spelling bee rule book through meticulous reading and discovers that all you need to compete is a sponsor and to have not graduated past an eight grade level. Thanks to his deadbeat mother, he never did--yet is still some sort of genius with photographic memory.
Jenny, who has agreed to foot the bill for his expenses on their multi-week tour, can barely pry the most rudimentary information from her interview subject, let alone the motive for his desire for spelling bee destruction. Along the way, he meets a friendless Indian boy named Chaitanya Chopra ("Is that English?" Guy remarks). Reluctantly on Guy's part, the two strike a friendship. Guy's fellow competitor is supposed to serve as our reason to ultimately "like" our antihero, but the obviousness of this tool doesn't make it come off so well.
His intermittent and awkward sex with Jenny is also supposed to make Guy more palatable, but their relationship is too disingenuous to believe. But what makes Bad Words a movie for the "good" column is the way in which it slowly doles out information about the motives for Guy's unorthodox methods--which we don't unearth to the full extent until act three.
In many ways, Bad Words serves to further the trend in character development (or lack thereof) in which the "protagonist" doesn't really need to arc that dramatically in order for a film to be deemed watchable by the people with the money. Hopefully for the next go around, Bateman and Dodge will have better fine-tuned the fine line between likable asshole with a motive and just asshole.