Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman, who proves as talented a director as actor) behaves like he doesn’t give a damn about anyone but himself—and that may indeed be the case. He’s an 8th-grade dropout on the cusp of middle age who, finding a loophole in the voluminous rules of a national spelling bee, enters the competition. He then sets out to crush his much younger competition and win the “Golden Quill” bee’s grand prize.
There hasn’t been a comic character this gleefully vicious since Billy Bob Thornton was a (very) Bad Santa. Trilby manipulates his young competitors in the meanest, most personally hurtful ways; he’s so expert, you begin to suspect he accumulated his cruel bag of tricks from being on the receiving end of such treatment. Or maybe not: Maybe, just maybe, Trilby is a genuine, bad to the bone, evil son of a bitch (or bastard).
One of the film’s better conceits is that the competition never ends. On stage, in the regionals and then, finally, the national finals, the cutthroat moves are as much about mind games as spelling. Off stage, in the down time, Trilby fends off personal questions from the journalist (Kathryn Hahn) whose web-based news site is sponsoring his quest (and with whom he’s having sex); she knows there must be a reason he’s doing this, and he won’t tell. Trilby also endures crude attempts by the spelling-bee poobahs (Allison Janney, hilarious in her deadpan disapproval, and Philip Baker Hall, malevolent in his not-so-veiled threats) to get rid of him, and has to fend off persistent offers of friendship from the perky, pint-sized competitor Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand). Though Trilby predictably dubs the kid “Slumdog,” they do bond—for a time, anyway.
The viciousness is mostly hilarious, and has the effect of making you both root for Trilby and hope he gets his comeuppance. The ultimate showdown between the final two spellers is ingeniously constructed, and all questions of Trilby’s motivations are answered. The reason many people are reacting uncomfortably to the ending, I think, is because it’s exactly true to the lead character—and it’s hard to like a guy as profoundly immature as Trilby.