“I’m not good at a lot of stuff, especially thinking things through,” Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman)
So says the opening voice over. Is it designed to soften our judgement of the irascible protagonist? Thankfully the crutch is thrown away, and we are allowed to revel in a character so foul-mouthed and angry, whose hilariously eviscerating put-downs save him from being unpalatable. How refreshing to have someone so bile-soaked. Bravo to Jason Bateman for his directorial debut, which he also stars in. The option of tackling middle of the road fluff may have been tempting; instead he takes Andrew Dodge’s sharp script and makes it his own.
That voice-over is a unique example of Guy Trilby’s modesty. The rest of the runtime is a masterclass in Teflon-coated egoism. Unassailable self-confidence is not begrudged when the mind is as bright as his. Trilby’s job as proofreader of product warranties has given him lawyer-like contract interpretation abilities; and through a loophole has managed to enter a children’s national spelling competition, even though he is a 40-year old. Guy never having passed 8th grade school education is able to compete, to the chagrin of contestants, parents and organisers. He wipes the floor with his so-called peers, progressing to the televised annual tournament: “The Golden Quill National Spelling Bee”.
Guy is a fascinating central figure. Little formal education is no obstacle to being smarter than everyone in the room. Regularly confronted by the irate, Trilby has the innate capacity for spying a person’s emotional vulnerabilities, even on first encounter, and driving a vitriolic verbal stake through the heart. Is it wrong to revel watching him at full tilt? The nub of his intriguing persona is the non-divulged motivation for entering the contest. Kathryn Hahn’s online journalist, footing the bill for his expenses in exchange for exclusive insights, can’t get him to offer up a quid pro quo. As usual she demoes her fearless comedienne credentials. The sex scenes are awkward; “Don’t look at me!” she continually yells at Guy during coitus.
Bateman directs sans fuss. The gags are primarily verbal sparring, and don’t require visual panache. Misjudged camera flourishes are wisely sidestepped. The banter is centre stage unencumbered. That’s not to say montage or slow-mo sequences are not utilised to help elevate above television fodder. The other asset is the burgeoning camaraderie between Guy and 10-year old competitor Chaitainya Chopra (Rohan Chand). The latter’s naïve enthusiasm finds a small chink in the armour. (Don’t worry, it is not an excuse for mawkishness.) Neither have friends, so much so that Chaitainya names his spelling binder “Todd”. Classy acting support is provided by Allison Janney and Philip Baker Hall.
High-five team BAD WORDS.