We join Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman, who also directed) already in progress, a 40 year-old misanthrope out to lay waste to a national championship-level spelling bee. Trilby is disdainful, rude, aggressive and sarcastic; he’s also casually racist, misogynistic and homophobic, the kind of man who insults strangers for no reason. If I’ve left out any other important, negative personality traits then he’s all of them, too.
Trilby's plan is to disrupt the competition by any means necessary and win against hundreds of dedicated children, to ruin the process and negate any good will that might attend the event. He’s the Bad Santa/Bad Teacher of this journey into bad words. A journalist (Kathryn Hahn) accompanies Trilby on his mission to crush dreams and exact revenge, but she’s not getting her story. He won’t speak until it’s time to spell a herd-thinning word like “floccinaucinihilipilification” (definition: the action or habit of estimating something as worthless, tellingly enough) or to insult his 9 year-old Indian-American rival and eventual protégé in badness (Rohan Chand) by calling the child “Slumdog” and then following it up with a joke about curry. Nobody said this guy’s hatefulness was clever, funny or inventive.
Now let’s back up a bit. Because how we got here matters, even if the film doesn't think so. Trilby doesn’t live in a parallel universe where magic exists. He's on Earth right now. And the audience doesn’t know why he’s behaving this way; it’s the plot’s grand secret, one explained by the end. What's not explained, though, is how he came to exist and how he manages to keep himself walking and talking instead of, say, beaten up repeatedly or arrested. How does he remain employed if every other word out of his mouth is profanity or cruel insult? How did a journalist come to take an interest in his story and financially sponsor his bitter quest given the real-life wrinkle of what journalists earn and the on-screen reality of her stubbornly uncooperative subject, a man who refuses to answer questions? Every person who crosses Trilby’s path is the sort who lies down and takes his abuse or stalks off in shock and outrage. But nobody ever calls him out as a sociopath or -- if this movie were keeping it as raw and real as it pretends it is -- hauls off and decks him the way he deserves. It all goes very smoothly for this extremely unlikeable man.
Until it’s time to learn a lesson and be generous and reveal the secret and turn the teensiest bit vulnerable, that is. The softening required of the unrepentant kicks in like it does in most films about unloveable sorts. But even that comes with a side of confused logic. Who wins? Who loses? Why are we still kept in the dark about the emotional content of Trilby's dilemma and the other characters affected by it? Why wasn’t this entire exercise in the power of difficult and unpleasant words sharper when it came to its own execution of those words? And really, what was the point?