There are hints of dickishness in just about every performance Jason Bateman has ever delivered, even the ones that find the Arrested Development star essentially playing a nice guy. (He’s too canny a comedian not to put his gift for withering asides and comic frustration to constant use.) Never before, however, has Bateman gone as full-bore asshole as he does in Bad Words, his gleefully vulgar directorial debut. The actor-turned-filmmaker casts himself as Guy Trilby, a grown man competing against grade-school children in the national spelling bee, thanks to a loophole in the competition’s rules. His cruelty and complete lack of shame eclipsed only by his certifiable smarts—the organizers can’t stump him, try as they might—Guy flings heinous insults at the parents who want his head, and wages psychological warfare on his adolescent competitors. Tabling any traces of everyman politeness, Bateman seems liberated by the opportunity to be truly mean. One wonders if he agreed to direct the film—competently, but without much flare—only to assure that he’d get to play the lead, too.
Bad Words pivots around the mystery of why this foul-mouthed prankster would subject himself, and the institution he’s gaming, to such a humiliation. For a while, that question provides the film a spark of intrigue, as several interested parties—among them a journalist, played by the reliably funny Kathryn Hahn, and Allison Janney’s disapproving bee president—unsuccessfully attempt to pry the information out of Guy. To its detriment, however, Bad Words eventually slides into much more conventional comedic territory. Its boorish hero is paired off with a pipsqueak foil (Rohan Chand), an irrepressibly wholesome spelling-bee rival. When his racist quips fail to scare the Indian-American youth away, Guy takes him under his wing, introducing the kid to the pleasures of alcohol, joy rides, and exposed breasts. As it quickly becomes clear, the similarity to Bad Santa is more than titular, but Bateman’s movie doesn’t have the bite of Terry Zwigoff’s. Beneath its rude exterior beats a soft, gooey heart.
The screenplay for Bad Words, written by newcomer Andrew Dodge, made the Black List, that annual survey of the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood. Some inspired obscenities aside, it’s not so difficult to see why studios passed on the project for a while; at times, it feels like it was written by a stand-up comedian too impressed by his own “edginess.” (Guy calling his partner-in-juvenility “Slumdog,” for example, is more lame than offensive.) As for the secret motivation behind the anti-hero’s kamikaze mission, it’s supremely mundane—and, for those familiar with Ebert’s Law Of Conservation Of Characters, very predictable. Still, none of this quite dilutes the hilarity of seeing Bateman unleash an onslaught of pettiness, his timing never better. Even when Bad Words is bad in the wrong way, it tends to be bad in the right way, too.