Okay, so it’s something of an anniversary already. This marks my one-hundredth film watched in 2014. And as if to celebrate this fact, I decided to mark this number by choosing something that I expected to thoroughly enjoy and furthermore, something that I expected to become a personal guilty pleasure in years to come. In short, how could a film directed by and starring Jason Bateman conceivably be, in any way, anything other than brilliant? I’m so spoilt. 100 down, and we’re still (just about, at time of writing) in March.
And yes, Jason Bateman’s first directorial venture is often brilliant. It’s not through and through amazing, certainly, and if we’re honest, probably won’t reach the lofty status of ‘guilty pleasure’ in my household anytime soon. The fiercely sharp script might give you a paper cut, so please careful when handling it.
This film tells the story of Guy (Bateman), a forty-year-old man that, due to a loophole in the rules, is allowed to compete in firstly the playoffs and then the finals of the national spelling bee. For those of you that aren’t familiar with this competition, this usually involves young children being given a preposterously difficult word to spell, whilst standing on a stage in front of an audience of expectant parents and relatives. It may sound a bit daft to us Brits, who find it difficult to get up in front of an audience at the best of times, and even a bit geeky. Most children that enter, if we’re brutally honest, are probably not the most popular kids in school.
Our focus is not on the children. We are following the adventures of Guy, as is journalist and sponsor, Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn) who has both a professional and personal interest in his well-being. She is writing a story for her online paper about the forty-year-old that seems to enjoy beating ten-year-olds at spelling.
For those of you that go into this unprepared, you have now been warned. I say this because the chances are you are going to be offended on at least one occasion in the film, and probably a few more, if truth be told. Early reviews half polarised opinion and negatively it has been labelled, rightly or wrongly, as brutal, vicious and even racist. The humour is on the black side of dark and Bateman’s delivery is as dry as one of 007’s Martini’s. What you make of these claims is a decision I leave up to you.
Acting-wise, Bateman’s performance is great, delivering the acidic script with relish and aplomb. His timing is excellent and even as you hear the words coming out of his mouth, you wonder just how he was able to say some of these things out loud. When he takes up with a fellow competitor, a lonely young boy named Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), Guy’s demeanour softens ever so slowly and we see a little smidgen of humanity peeping out.
The question in everyone’s lips, from audience to every other character in the film is ‘why is he doing this?’ Sure enough, there is a reason other than the pure satisfaction of proving oneself better than a group of ten-year-olds. Frightful though Guy might be as a human being, even he is not quite that sad and shallow.
The greatest criticism that you can really throw at the film, is the about-turn in personality that our lead makes. The film suggests a sweeping and radical change of perspective from an individual that we are initially led to believe is least likely to do so. Apart from what may be a glaring character flaw and the fundamental question of whether what is said on screen is acceptable to the audience, there is little wrong with the film to speak of. It is never quite funny enough to make you laugh out loud, but you will almost certainly find yourself chuckling when your brain tells you that you shouldn’t. Check your moral compass at the door, people. Remember, it’s just a movie and you’ll be fine.
Take a look at the RED BAND trailer to get an idea of what you’re letting yourself in for.