“Nobody really needs to see another god damn spelling bee movie,” said Jason Bateman when asked if his new film, Bad Words, is saying something about the spelling bee world. In truth, this new film is nothing like the films we've seen in the past about spelling bees.
When you imagine spelling bees, typically you envision driven, intelligent children supervised by their adoring parents. However, Bad Words follows Guy Trilby (Bateman) as he exploits loopholes in the system and uses it to his own advantage. Guy’s unrelenting determination to win the spelling bees and his non-stop anger are simply a backdrop to his need to settle a personal score in a ridiculously childish way.
The film opens with Guy entering a spelling bee for no apparent reason apart from possibly causing havoc amongst the parents as he easily defeats their children while contaminating the competition's youthful purity. Accompanying him on his journey is reporter Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn) who spends the majority of the film trying to deduce the absurd reasoning behind Guy’s actions.
But despite a physical connection between the two, Guy chooses to open up to 10-year-old Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand). Together, they spark an unusual connection, bonding over absurd experiences and their deep investments in spelling bees.
For the first time, Bateman takes on the role of director and protagonist. His debut film draws from his comedy background ("Arrested Development," Identity Thief, Horrible Bosses), using his knowledge as an actor combined with his experience working with a vast number of directors.
“Directors never have the chance to work with other directors,” said Bateman. “They never see how any other director does it.”
However, he clearly learned from his time around experienced directors, as he shows a keen eye for comedic timing and uses unique stylistic choices, both visually and thematically.
Working with writer Andrew Dodge, Bateman found the perfect combination of subtle and outrageous humor that is enticing, but still also has brief moments of true sincerity. Bad Words is strung together with a lot of clever one-liners blanketed by the larger joke regarding spelling bees. Physical humor merged with verbal humor ensures a laugh, even if it is one stemmed from an offensive joke. Vulgar language may not be used sparingly, but it is used in effective ways that adds to the story's nature.
Although clearly a comedy, Bad Words is not without its more humble and touching moments. Guy may be an emotionally distant character, but he finds moments of truthfulness alongside his trusty little companion, Chaitanya. Perhaps he feels more comfortable around someone the same age, maturity wise.
Bateman explained he was able to strike a balance between making Guy relatable yet still remote. “That effort was a complicated one – to make him emotionally available and still be kind of standoff-ish. To make him likeable, yet overtly prickly,” he said. “All of those things are tonal things; you use different tools to execute them.”
One of the best things about the film is that Bateman does not shy away from the explicit, crude or just plain childish scenes. Many of them involve not just Bateman, but also his young co-star, Chand. Their antics elevate the humor, especially witnessing the naïve Chaitanya experience a whole lot of ‘firsts’ at the hands of Guy. Chand holds his own against the seasoned comedy pro, and in some cases, he even steals the scene with his raw curiosity that is both adorable and comical.
But how does one work with a child in a somewhat explicit film? It is rated R, after all. Bateman explained he was not worried about Chand doing the more “inappropriate” scenes.
“[Chand] and his parents obviously read the script before they auditioned, as did all of the other kids in the movie,” said Bateman. “They were comfortable with it. I felt a certain obligation to explain what the comedic tone of the film was going to be, so that they could find some comfort in the fact that it wasn’t gratuitous or arbitrary, that all of this ‘prickliness’ was coming from a base of emotion and character.”
Despite his onscreen antics, Bateman has a subtle touch, especially regarding the younger cast. “An actor who is comfortable will give you the best stuff,” he said. “Being a child actor was even more helpful since I started at the same age as Rohan [Chand]. I remembered how I liked to be treated … it made it a lot easier to make it a comfortable experience for him.”
Since it is a vastly young cast, there is an overwhelming sense of innocence -- all of which is exploited and tampered with by Guy’s immaturity. This is mainly enacted through pranks that may seem cruel on paper but are hilarious on screen. Bateman remarked that he pulled from personal experience. “I was kind of a dickhead when I was a kid,” he admitted. “It was fun to let [my inner child] out and let him be Guy Trilby for a few weeks.”
However, Bateman is not alone with his comedic prowess. Philip Baker Hall adds his name to the mix, bringing a sinister atmosphere as a founder of the Golden Quill spelling bee. The banter between Bateman and Hall is a treat to watch, as it is not a battle of jokes but rather a clash of intelligence and snarky comments.
Additionally, Allison Janney, who plays the almost neurotic tournament director, is the nerdy version of a pageant mother. Spelling bees are her life, and she cannot accept Guy ruining them.
At the end of the day, being part of a movie engrossed in the spelling bee circuit does not elevate your spelling standards. In fact, Bateman confided, “All of the hard words I had to spell were all written on big white cue cards off camera. I had to sneak peeks at them…and I still misspelled them.”
*Sydney Champion contributed to this story.
Bad Words will be released in select theaters March 14, 2014 and will expand across the country on March 21 and March 28.
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