"So did your soul burst into flames?"
So asks Guy Trilby, the protagonist of "Bad Words," a pitch-black comedy in which there are no heroes. Jason Bateman, making his directorial debut, stars as a man seemingly without a good bone in his body. He is a racquetball wall of a man, returning contempt and abuse with equal or even greater force. To say he is unlikeable is to suggest that has ever contemplated the notion of seeking approval from others.
Guy is a cipher, a mystery man who appears seemingly from nowhere, 40 years old and untethered, taking a sabbatical from a dull job proofreading warranties to enter the Golden Quill National Spelling Bee. Of course, the $50,000 contest is for students eighth grade and below, but he exploits a loophole to force his way in, a middle-aged man among preadolescents.
And he does not just compete against cute kids, but dominates them, both emotionally and physically. He plays head games and cheats, taunting the heavyset contestants and convincing another that he has slept with his mother. Guy is, in other words, a colossal dick.
The fact that Bateman and screenwriter Andrew Dodge make Guy simply palatable as a main character is quite an achievement, and to say that we actually enjoy following along on his strange, dark journey is quite another.
Guy's exact reasons for taking on this challenge, absorbing untold abuse from parents and bee officials in the process, largely remain a mystery until near the end. Even then, his justification seems not to measure up to the ruckus he's caused, and I think he knows it, but he just wants to make a statement about who he is and how he got to be where he has arrived.
Philip Baker Hall and Allison Janney play the unctuous senior Golden Quill executives who are flummoxed to no end by the prospect of Guy hijacking their prestigious event on national television, and take steps to block his way to the championship.
Guy arrives at the national contest with a reporter in tow named Jenny (Kathryn Hahn), a flustered wreck who has plenty of issues of her own, starting with the fact that she keeps sleeping with the subject of her big story. Guy plays her just like he does the spelling bee, letting out only dribs and drabs of information.
The movie's most surprising turn is Guy's antagonism with an 11-year-old Indian-American boy named Chaitanya Chopra, played brilliantly by Rohan Chand. Chaitanya is chirpy and friendly, a geeky kid but a self-possessed one, who seems to take it as his own personal mission to befriend the middle-aged interloper, despite heaping helpings of politically incorrect insults directed his way. ("Point your curry hole back the other way," is one of the few riffs quotable in friendly company.)
There's more going on with Chaitanya than meets the eye, of course, foreshadowed by his volunteering that his favorite word is "subjugate." But things occur that are unexpected by both man and boy, a dizzy mix of hedonism and male bonding, that somehow feel just right.
Just so we're clear: this is a dark, dark film. It's often very funny, but in the sort of way where you feel bad right after you quit laughing. It's reminiscent in many ways of "Bad Santa" from a few years back, but it actually makes that film seem like a lighthearted romp by comparison.
(That query quoted at the beginning of this review is Guy's tutelage in the proper usage of expletives. Yes, not only do the adults in this movie curse in front of children, they elicit nasty words from the mouths of babes.)
As contests go, spelling bees rank somewhere just below the Westminster Dog Show in terms of the amount of attention given to something so profoundly useless and preposterous. Young students beat themselves to a pulp to learn to spell obscure words they will never employ in their entire lifetimes, at least not if they want to be understood by others.
(If inscrutability is indeed their goal, we save a few places in academia for them.)
In addition to his own poisonous personal reasons, Guy also seems to be pointing out to the world how ridiculous bees are, yet another way in which we push our children to be how we would like them to be rather than affording them the freedom to discover themselves.
That's a pretty sinister bit of subtext for a movie so deliciously good at making us feel bad, laughing all the way to the therapist.