[Screen It]


(2014) (Jason Bateman, Rohan Chand) (R)

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Comedy: A 40-year-old man uses a loophole in the rules to compete in a national spelling bee competition.
Guy Trilby (JASON BATEMAN) is a 40-year-old man who's on an unusual quest to win the National Quill Spelling Bee. Since he never formally made it past the 8th grade in his education, he's using that loophole in the rules to compete as he makes his way from winning one competition after the next on his way to the national championship. Accompanying him is Jenny Widgeon (KATHRYN HAHN), an online newspaper reporter who's trying to get to the bottom of his peculiar behavior for a story she's doing, but so far he's determined not to give her much info, although that doesn't stop him from sleeping with her.

Less open is spelling bee director Dr. Bernice Deagan (ALLISON JANNEY) who is less than thrilled at the prospect of having an adult in the contest, a sentiment shared with National Quill president Dr. Bowman (PHILIP BAKER HALL) who's also working the event as a TV announcer alongside Pete Fowler (BEN FALCONE). What Guy doesn't expect, however, is having 10-year-old competitor Chaitanya Chopra (ROHAN CHAND) as his unwelcome constant companion. The boy, who's quite good, seems lonely and in need of a friend, even if it's someone like Guy who constantly insults and tries to ward off the kid.

Yet, as the competition continues and the number of competitors dwindles, Guy ends up somewhat softening toward Chaitanya , all while Jenny tries to get her story and Dr. Deagan and Dr. Bowman do their best to get rid of the man.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
I was going to start this review writing a paragraph in the guise of a teen-speak, throwing around acronyms such as ROFLMAO, sup, SYL, T2UT and so on. I then realized, however, that whatever I wrote wouldn't come off as legit and I'd just be some AITR (Adult In The Room) trying to fit in. Granted, adults in other generations have reacted in befuddlement to whatever the common slang of the day was. But at least most of those were actual words or combinations thereof and not acronyms, misspellings and such.

In fact, I'd guess that since teens spend so much time on their smart phones, tablets and the Internet, most of their attention to proper spelling and grammar is relegated just to appease teachers and professors on writing assignments. And the notion of participating in a spelling bee contest and actually having to use proper, fully spelled-out words likely seems quaint when not too much of a hassle.

The thought of a non-documentary movie about spelling bees and those who participate in them likely seems quaint as well. The last ones that come to mind are 2005's "Bee Season" and 2006's "Akeelah and the Bee." Even so, the real-life Scripps National Spelling Bee is still a big deal among lots of students, their equally supportive and competitive parents, and boatloads of educators around the world. The final rounds of that annual contest are even broadcast on ESPN.

And now it's the backdrop for "Bad Words," a dark comedy about a highly unusual and unlikely contestant in the fictional National Quill Spelling Bee. And that competitor would be 40-year-old Guy Trilby who's found a loophole in the eligibility rules and thus entered the contest due to never having progressed beyond an eighth grade education. That might sound decidedly less than quaint and maybe even sacrilegious to spelling bee supporters, but this irreverent comedy isn't trying to be honorable to the institution, although it does feature some smart characters, young and older, with quite the prowess for spelling complex words.

The film -- think something along the lines of "Bad Santa and the Bee" -- is written by Andrew Dodge and marks the directorial debut of actor-turned-filmmaker Jason Bateman who also appears in front of the camera as the lead character. Followed by a reporter (Kathryn Hahn) who's trying to dig for what's driving the wild card competitor, and receiving scornful looks from various parents, the director of the Bee (Allison Janney) and one of the TV announcers (Philip Baker Hall) who's also the National Quill director, the protagonist is skilled but conceited, arrogant and a bit of a jerk in terms of what he'll do to psych-out his much younger opponents.

Whether it's getting one kid to imagine his mom's had an affair with him or making a teenage girl believe she's just had her period, he'll do whatever it takes to win. But he may have met his match in a precocious young boy (Rohan Chand) who's just as eager to make a friend as he is to win, and thus latches onto Guy like a puppy that seems oblivious to the abuse it's receiving and just keeps coming back wanting more attention.

Right about now, you're likely picturing how the plot plays out after that. And that likely goes along the lines of the kid managing to soften the man's demeanor, show him the errors of his ways, and allow him to redeem himself by helping the kid not only win the bee, but also new friends his own age. Well, you'd sort of be right to varying degrees, but the filmmakers are also going after a bit more than just that.

Some stems from dealing with decisions past and present, including one's own as well as those of others. Other parts are social commentary on adults and their ultra-competitive mindset when it comes to kid competitions. But what the film mainly is interested in doing is generating laughs. And one's response to that will lie squarely in terms of how you react to comedy-based misanthropes.

Yes, I'll admit that some of the material is funny from time to time. It won't be hard, though, for some or possibly many viewers to be offended by what's passed off as humor, including the man's racist remarks, quips and insults aimed at the young boy. It's all intended to be irreverent, over-the-top and decidedly politically incorrect. It succeeds at that, but the jury's out on whether audiences en masse find that entertaining, although things do soften up a bit in the third act, as to be expected.

I found it pushing those boundaries too far and too often for my tastes, but I can't say I was ever bored, even after figuring out quite early on the real reason behind the protagonist crashing this kids' competition. A little more clever and witty satire in place of some of the mean-spiritedness could have gone a long way, and while I was never ROFLMAO, I found "Bad Words" amusing and engaging enough to rate as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed February 12, 2014 / Posted March 21, 2014

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