At some point in the last 20 years spelling bees became a vicious battleground for the non-athletic set to prove themselves. Helicopter moms and overbearing dads at every turn; pushing and prodding their children to learn the entire dictionary from all angles and take no prisoners. The world of competitive spelling bees is also one dominated by kids of Indian descent. Kids who long ago cornered the market on pushy, prodding parents. So dominant, in fact, that the ESPN televised Scripps Spelling Bee has crowned an Indian-American champion for 11 of the last 15 years.
Jason Bateman sets Bad Words, his directorial debut, in this hyper-competitive world. Mr. Bateman also stars as Gus Trillby, a foul-mouthed reprobate who, for reasons all his own, decides to enter the prestigious Golden Quill Spelling Bee. Along the way he meets his chief rival for the title; the wide-eyed, all-too precocious Chaitanya Chopra, played by Roshan Chand, who carries a nasty little secret as well.
As a director, Mr. Bateman shows some promise. His brisk pacing keeps the laughs coming and he gets memorable performances from his actors. Only the always-welcome Kathryn Hahn seems a bit underused in her role as the journalist footing the bill for Trillby’s childish behavior in hopes of a feature article.
But the dynamic between the brilliantly acidic Mr. Bateman and the irrepressible sweetness of Mr. Chand is the movie’s strong point. Mr. Bateman possesses tremendous gifts as a comedian. Here he brings the world-weary deadpan that served him so well on Arrested Development, but mixes it with a razor-sharp mean streak. Its a committed, bitingly funny performance. Mr. Chand, so damn adorable they probably ripped him directly out of a Disney movie about orphans, proves up to the task. Every jagged barb from Mr. Bateman is countered with a fresh breath of innocence and acceptance.
The bond that grows between these two loners; Trillby’s isolation by choice and Chopra by circumstance, comes naturally. Chopra, when asked where his father is on the flight to the spelling bee, responds matter-of-factly, “First class,” and he is flying coach because his “father says it builds character.” Trillby responds by telling him to “shut his curry hole” and turn around…in so many words. But they find a connection in their loneliness.
Usually in films where the key relationship is between an older person and a younger person, the younger person reminds the older person how to get back into the world and live life and the older person imparts important life lessons. Think Up or Gran Torino.
Bad Words takes a unique approach and flips the script. Mr. Bateman’s character needs to be taught some very specific life lesson. Meanwhile, Mr. Chand’s Chaitanya lives a life familiar to many first generation Indian Americans. Sheltered, lonely, and faced with almost unrealistic expectations; Chaitanya Chopra needs to see the world and Gus Trillby takes him on one hilariously inappropriate ride.
About Krishna: I‘m 34 now, but for the last 10 years, whether it be for my college newspaper, my hometown daily, or my own blog I’ve been trying to convince people what/what not to listen to and watch. I have opinions…on nearly everything. And you might not always agree with me, but I’ll make damn sure its entertaining enough to read. So get ready for the ride! You can see more at unkut.tumblr.com and if you want to tell me how you agree with me, or more likely how you think I’m completely off base, you can blast me at @kthinakk on Twitter.