How do you spell ‘comedy’? C-R-I-N-G-E

Guy (Jason Bateman) plays mind games with a young competitor in Bad Words (photo by Sam Urdank/Focus Features)
Guy (Jason Bateman) plays mind games with a young competitor in Bad Words (photo by Sam Urdank/Focus Features)

By Richard Ades

Back when I was arts editor for Columbus’s now-defunct The Other Paper, one of our ace critics turned in a review of a horror flick with a grisly scene: The heroes dispatched an attacker by sticking his head in a microwave oven and holding it there until it exploded.

Puzzled, I asked the critic how the filmmakers got around the fact that microwaves don’t work when the door is open. They didn’t care about such technicalities, he replied gleefully. “They just wanted to make someone’s head explode!”

It seems like an odd comparison, but a couple of scenes from Bad Words reminded me of that incident. Smart but antisocial 40-year-old Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) has wormed his way into an adolescent spelling bee, and he proceeds to launch underhanded and exceedingly nasty psychological attacks on two of his competitors in an attempt to undermine their confidence.

Like the microwave offensive, the attacks make no logical sense. First, Guy’s spelling skills are so advanced that the kids pose no real threat to him, so why bother? And second, if his dirty tricks were exposed (and there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t be in the real world), he would be ejected from the competition faster than you can say “antidisestablishmentarianism.”

So why did the filmmakers include the attacks in their sordid comedy? Because, to paraphrase that wise critic, they just wanted to see Guy act mean to two defenseless kids.

Another comparison between the microwave scene and the spelling-bee attacks: You have to have a sadistic streak in order to enjoy them.

Well, maybe that’s too harsh. A cross between 2003’s Bad Santa and the stage musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Bad Words seeks the kind of laughs that grow out of shockingly inappropriate and irresponsible behavior. Now, I’m as susceptible to this kind of comedy as anyone—I loved Bad Santa, for example—but Bad Words inspires more cringes than guffaws.

A key weakness is that scriptwriter Andrew Dodge and first-time director Bateman don’t sufficiently explain Guy’s motivation for crashing a contest that’s meant for kids. We surmise that it has something to do with his own failure as a bee competitor when he was an eighth-grader, and possibly with the recent death of his mother. But when we learn his real reason for entering the contest, it’s hard not to think, “That’s it?” His ultimate goal doesn’t begin to explain his actions.

Another weakness is that, despite its hard-edged sense of humor, the film eventually gets stuck in a sappily predictable rut. As soon as a lonely 10-year-old spelling whiz named Chaitanya Chopra enters the scene and tries his best to befriend the eccentric adult, we know it’s only a matter of time before Guy’s icy heart begins to melt.

If Bad Words remains marginally palatable, it’s due solely to the strength of its able cast. Besides the understated Bateman, the players include Kathryn Hahn as the reporter who sometimes shares Guy’s bed, Allison Janney as an angry bee official and Philip Baker Hall (known to Seinfeld fans as no-nonsense library detective Mr. Bookman) as the bee’s founder. But no one contributes more to the film than young Rohan Chand, who is consistently adorable as the indomitable Chaitanya.

Without Chaitanya’s lovable presence, Bad Words would be simply an exercise in misanthropic excess.

Bad Words opens Friday (March 21) at the Lennox 24.

Rating: 2½ stars (out of 5)

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Hoping to spell their way to happiness

Japheal Bondurant as competitor William Barfee in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Red Generation Photography)
Japheal Bondurant as competitor William Barfee in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Red Generation Photography)

By Richard Ades

A confession: I was disappointed when I heard CATCO had booked The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee for its new season.

That was partly because I’d rather see Columbus’s premier troupe tackle works that aren’t quite so familiar. Mostly, though, it was because I’d seen a touring production come through town several years back and hadn’t fallen in love with it.

But you know what they say about love being better the second time around? Maybe that also applies to this quirky musical. Thanks to CATCO’s personable production, I now love both it and its nerdy characters.

With a book by Rachel Sheinkin and music and lyrics by William Finn (Falsettos), Spelling Bee is like a comedic and tuneful version of the 2002 documentary Spellbound. Like the film, it delves into the personalities of the young contestants in an attempt to explain how they became spelling whizzes and why parlaying their skills into victory is so important to them.

It could be that director Steven Anderson’s long submergence in children’s theater has served him well here, because his production’s greatest strength is its ability to turn each of the competitors into a recognizably and lovably eccentric individual.

Early laughs are won by Leaf Coneybear (Patrick Walters), whose behavior is even odder than his helmeted and caped attire. Also attracting our attention is the Korean-American Marcy Park (Nicolette Montana), who only later reveals why she seems annoyed by the whole event.

The richest portrayals are provided by Japheal Bondurant as the plus-sized William Barfee—whose haughtiness could well be both a reflection of his brilliance and a defense against an often-hostile world—and Elisabeth Zimmerman as the lonely Olive Ostrovsky. Played by Zimmerman with a deer-in-the-headlights expression and a lovely voice, Olive reveals the direness of her situation in the show’s most touching number, The I Love You Song.

Also taking part in the competition are Chip Tolentino (James Sargent), whose struggle to repeat last year’s victory is complicated by his dictatorial libido, and Logainne Schwarzandgrubenierre (Emily Turner), whose gay fathers encourage her to win at any cost.

Four pre-selected audience members play additional competitors and frequently come in for witty and personalized jibes from the spelling bee’s hosts, Rona Lisa Peretti (Krista Lively-Stauffer) and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Ralph E. Scott). Panch, by the way, has many of the show’s funniest lines—which usually follow the question “Can you use it in a sentence?”—and Scott delivers them with deadpan perfection.

The cherry on the show’s comical sundae is Mitch Mahoney (Geoffrey Martin), a scruffy ex-con who was sentenced to perform community service by acting as the competition’s “comfort counselor.”

Michael S. Brewer’s set design captures the look of a school auditorium right down to the cinder-block walls and the “Putnam Piranhas” wall signs. A band led by Matt Clemens is a spirited presence despite being hidden backstage.

With tuneful tunes, heartfelt performances and more laugh-out-loud moments than you can shake a dictionary at, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is simply irresistible.

CATCO will present The Twentieth Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee through Aug. 18 in Studio One, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 11 a.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $41 for Thursday and Sunday performances, $45 for Fridays and Saturdays, $11.50 for Wednesday matinees. Student tickets are available for $15 two hours before non-sold-out performances. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.