Published Sep 25, 2013For his directorial debut, Jason Bateman selected first-time screenwriter Andrew Doge's Blacklisted script, about an acerbic, middle-aged copy editor for product warranties who exploits a loophole in the contest rules to enter, and make a mockery of, a national children's spelling bee. Prodigiously impertinent, Doge's script is frequently riotous, though its venom is diluted by an over-reliance on cutesy hijinks involving a precocious Indian kid. And while his presence affords Guy Trilby (Batemen) the opportunity to insouciantly comment on his "curry hole," among other such insensitive zingers, the trajectory of their friendship is a bit too pat and predictable to match the tone of the rest of the film.
As Guy breezes through the opening rounds of competition, he understandably attracts the ire of the parents of the children he's unapologetically dominating. Making a comment on the vicarious puppetry many parents indulge in, the kids don't put up the same sort of fuss about taking on adult competition: it's a game; it's supposed to be fun. But while Guy does enjoy flipping the bird to the establishment, it's not a game for him; it's a mission.
The guarded nature of that objective is what attracts the interest of a reporter, played by the ever-reliable Kathryn Hahn (Wanderlust). Filled with acidic banter and the occasional hate-bang, their relationship is a consistent source for the kind of nasty humour Bad Words thrives on.
Along the road to the championships, Guy grudgingly befriends young Chaitanya (the bright-eyed and bushed-tailed Rohan Chand). Initially, the supposedly adorable spelling whiz is a mere annoyance to the misanthrope with a daddy-sized chip on his shoulder, but of course, they bond, as Guy recognizes the fun of acting like a dirty uncle to the irrepressibly optimistic youngster. What better way to confirm such a friendship on screen than with a montage of underage boozing, random pranks and small fry's first glimpse of milk dispensers, thanks to a gullible (or simply unconcerned), more than voluptuous hooker?
Bateman doesn't fare as well behind the camera as in front of, having a propensity to frame shots exceedingly tight. Whatever the intent, it's an off-putting tactic that comes across as something done out of a self-conscious desire to have a distinct visual sensibility without fully considering how it affects the viewing experience.
That authorial inexactitude, coupled with a completely disposable antagonist — stern spelling bee director Dr. Bernice Deagan (Allison Janney, doing the best she can with a barely written role) — and the saccharine buddying of Guy and Chaitanya undermine the playfully politically incorrect vitriol that gives the film its spark. (Focus Features)