In one of the many linked plots in the 1999 film Magnolia, William H. Macy plays a sad, middle-aged guy named Donnie Smith who knows that the peak of his life was his triumph on a show called What Do Kids Know? Smith has a great meltdown in a bar where the program is on TV, with no idea that the show’s veteran host, played by Philip Baker Hall, is going through a meltdown of his own.
Bad Words, the comedy by actor and first-time director Jason Bateman, is like a shallow remix of those themes and characters, with a dollop of the daddy issues that swirl throughout Magnolia. Bateman even cast Hall as the patriarch of the Golden Quill Spelling Bee, in which Bateman’s character Guy Trilby tries to get revenge on life in a way that was pitifully out of reach for Macy’s character.
Trilby, who has spotted a loophole in the spelling bee’s entry requirements, isn’t choosy about who gets bruised by his need to get even. He insults everyone he meets, by race, religion, body type or sexual orientation, and traumatizes his preteen competitors. He goads their parents and other authority figures into venting their own vindictive urges. Trilby refuses all demands to explain why he is doing this, until the answer is handed to us, late in the movie, on a plate.
The laughs in this film are all mean-spirited or just frat-boy gross, including one sight gag that involves a live lobster in a toilet. It’s not clear whether Bateman or screenwriter Andrew Dodge actually want us to laugh at Trilby’s bile, or whether they’re just illustrating his bitterness and daring us to find it funny. That’s presumably why Bad Words is pitched as a “subversive” comedy.
Bateman strikes a peevish note from the start and seldom wavers from it, apparently trusting that his underlying boyish charm will carry the day. It doesn’t. When Trilby’s revenge arrives, we’re cued to see that it doesn’t matter to him after all, that he’s a larger person than the avenging prick he seems to be. The film ultimately gives him a pass on his racist, misogynist spleen, because, you know, the guy had beef and needed to blow it off somehow.
Bateman’s directing style has few distinguishing traits. He uses a shaky hand-held camera for some spelling bee scenes, as if to give them a mockumentary edge. But spelling bee movies, such as Spellbound and Akeelah and the Bee, are so earnestly uplifting as to be already on the brink of self-satire. Bad Words does prove, however, that the thrills of watching people spell in public are limited.
Kathryn Hahn squirms and squints her way through the film as a nerdy reporter who – amazingly – has been given weeks to get Trilby’s story, and money to pay his expenses. Allison Janney is wasted as a humourless spelling bee director, and Rohan Chand’s chipper performance shows how quickly even cute child stars can become annoying.
Only Hall get through this flat-footed movie with any grace, expressing many shades of dignity and fragility in his brief scenes. He alone seems to embody the truth of Donnie Smith’s comment, as he leaves that bar in Magnolia: “We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us.”