Review: Bad Words
In one of the many funny and uncomfortable moments from Bad Words, our unlikeable protagonist Gus Tribly tells a spelling bee participant that he slept with the kid’s mother the night before. He offers him proof too.
Of course this frazzles the focused child, and leads to one less competitor for Mr. Tribly. And it is Mr. Tribly, as this speller is in fact a middle-aged man set on some sort of unknown personal quest of vengeance. As we quickly learn though, not only is Gus mean-spirited, vulgar, and spiteful, but he is also a marvelous speller, meaning he doesn’t really need to tease the aforementioned kid (a ploy he enacts several more times).
So we’re not really sure why this man-child feels the need to be a jerk to these kids, as well as parents, administrators, and journalists, or why he has even entered. It doesn’t add up, but for it to all make sense and be coherent would be asking too much of a film that simply aims to amuse and startle.
Jason Bateman stars as Mr. Tribly in a film that marks his directorial debut, and his antagonistic wordsmith would be more interesting and more fun to dislike if he weren’t so annoying and one-dimensional. Having never completed the eighth grade (again, for reasons unknown), Gus jumps through a loophole enabling him to compete against preteens at first a regional spelling bee, and then on to nationals.
His motivations are unclear, and every time his sponsor – a young female journalist who has been promised a story at the end of the tourney – pokes and prods, Gus pushes her away, claiming to be tired or in need of a drink or simply hassled.
She constantly asks, but after the second or third time, it’s apparent she cares more about his past traumas and future goals more than the audience. Gus is a malcontent, but an inconsistent one, the unimaginative kid among young spellers who are of course more mature. One of them, a precocious and independent entrant named Chaitanya continuously runs into Gus and can’t help but seek his friendship (presumably too because he has some issues).
Gus is mean to him, and because it’s a movie, it’s funny, not deep. Of course the book smart and impressionable young child slowly breaks away at the armor of a stunted man who wants to be alone in the way that people who actually want attention say they want to be alone.
Even looking that deep down into Gus’ psyche though is giving him and the film more credit that is worth. He scoffs at a dedicated mother, a doting father, a petulant bee-master played with seriousness by Allison Janney, and an idealistic official (Philip Baker Hall).
It’s a better film when it focuses on Gus and Chaitanya, and it’s not as big a part as it should be, for Bateman engages in entertaining but raunchy tangents and broaches a boring relationship between Gus and the journalist.
Gus Tribly though is our central figure, but who he really is quickly and ever becomes meaningless; what he does – drinking, swearing, traumatizing – is superficial amusement, even if what he does really makes no sense whatsoever.