Mini-Review: Jason Bateman’s Bad Words (2013) is a Solid Directorial Debut and a Funny Black Comedy

Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) is a 40-year-old middle school dropout who found a loophole in the system and managed to participate at the illustrious Golden Quill spelling bee. Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn) is a journalist trying to find out why he’d do such a silly thing. Guy seems like he doesn’t care about anything. He is an asshole to anyone he meets, but things change when he befriends a 10-year old kid (Rohan Chand). Will the two end up as the finalists in this ridiculous contest? You’ve guessed it! 

Bad Words is actor and comedian Jason Bateman’s directorial debut, based on Andrew Dodge‘s debut screenplay. I was immediately hooked by the funny premise, which is ironically taken very seriously (but in a good way). The film presents in an uncommonly dark color palette for a comedy. Cinematographer Ken Seng (Disconnecthelps creating a rather unpleasant aesthetic dominated by sepia tones, which I generally dislike, but thought were very appropriate for this particular story.

The film is about a son taking revenge on his father. It’s a nice story, but not without contradictions and dubious plot points. Bateman’s character is supposedly a “genius”, but he doesn’t seem interested in achieving anything in his life (except showing his father). He says a lot of unsavory and even racist things and yet he becomes best buddy with an Indian kid. I also didn’t like how every Asian kid in this film was made fun of, I don’t know what that was all about. Maybe there was a political message that I’m missing.

Aside from those problems I liked how this film managed to be dark and funny at the same time. Not all the jokes work of course, but it tries different things and succeeds for the most part. Allison Janney has a small role in this and she just cracks me up. She doesn’t even need to say anything. Jason Bateman himself is quite good, but he always is. The little kid does a fine job. He’s totally cute. I like the dynamic between the two and the fact that they bond because of their common daddy issues. Kathryn Hahn‘s character is a bit superfluous, but it’s fine.

I like that there’s a “happy” resolution to it all. It’s good to see character arcs for almost every character. Another thing I like about the film itself is how it manages to make you feel that you’re watching the spelling bee contest on television, by realistically recreating the cheap TV photography. Once again this is a directorial choice, of course brilliantly executed by Ken Seng. I guess this is one of those films that came and went. Not many people saw it and those who did weren’t exactly hot on it. I’d say it’s certainly worth a watch.

On a semi-unrelated note I am also a fan of the marketing for this film, with the minimalist 50s-style posters.

7 out of 10


  1. Annie Oakley

    Have you noticed that it seems as though the writer watched Magnolia (PTA) and adapted the father & son quiz show story, except the current writers story BAD WORDS is not as good. It even stars Philip Baker Hall as the absent father (spelling bee host) who played the Quiz master and absentee father in Magnolia.

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